BEIRUT (AP) — The suspected chemical weapons attack on Douma was a brutal finale for a town that had haunted Syrian President Bashar Assad for seven years from right on his doorstep.
The leafy suburb on Damascus’ outskirts was the bastion of one of the toughest, most disciplined Islamist factions in Syria’s rebellion, raining mortars on Assad’s seat of power and holding out for years under devastating siege. Now destroyed and defeated, it will be the scene of an international fact-finding mission that arrives Saturday to try to determine what happened there.
Russia and the United States have traded threats of military strikes and counterstrikes since the April 7 attack, which first responders and activists say killed more than 40 people and blamed on Assad’s forces. Syria has denied any such attack even took place.
On Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed the attack was fake and accused Britain of staging it, a bold charge vehemently denied by Britain as “a blatant lie.”
The suspected chemical strike came after weeks of an intense air campaign that killed an estimated 1,600 people and tore the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta apart, leveling towns in an enclave that once housed 400,000 people, according to U.N. estimates.
A resident of Douma, an economist who fled the town amid threats to his life in 2015 and now lives in exile, said eight of his neighbors— two women and their six children — were found dead three days after the suspected April 7 chemical attack and were believed to have suffocated in their underground shelter from the poisonous gas. He said two of his aunts were still missing.
“There were plenty of bloody attacks before the use of chemical weapons and no one moved,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared for the safety of his family now living under government control. “Only now and after seven years of destruction, the U.S. and the world remembered it was time to punish Assad?”
Hours after the suspected chemical attack, the Army of Islam rebel group, which had controlled Douma since 2012, agreed to surrender and evacuate its fighters to rebel-held northern Syria. The militants also agreed to give up their prisoners, a key demand of the Syrian government, and surrender their heavy weapons and maps of tunnels built over the years to navigate the sprawling neighborhood. The last batch of rebel fighters left Douma on Friday, heading to Jarablus, a town in northern Syria controlled by Turkey-backed rebels and with a Turkish military presence.
A member of the Army of Islam, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Samer, said the alleged chemical gas attack was the final blow that settled the group’s fate. Fearing an internal uprising and divisions within the group, Army of Islam leaders opted to leave Douma, he said.
“To be honest, it was not the death of 40 or 50 that would have made (the rebels) give up on Douma. Many more died earlier, “Abu Samer said. “The chemical attack wasn’t the cruelest. But it was the terror and panic that hit the people that exerted the pressure on the group to leave.”
Known for its luscious grapes and apricots, Douma was a hub for anti-Assad protests in the early, peaceful days of the uprising. Residents of Damascus came there to rally and march, away from the heavy security in the capital. The town was split among Islamists — including ultraconservative Salafis — and more socialist and Nasserite movements. When the government moved to quash the revolt, the town was among the first to take up arms. It was in rebel hands by 2012.
The Army of Islam, whose founder Zahran Alloush was a native of Douma, quickly gained the upper hand, squeezing out the secular activists. But it also staunchly resisted the expansion of foreign jihadists, seeing them as rivals. After Alloush was assassinated in a suspected government airstrike in late 2015, the group maintained its organization and its grip, although its popular support eroded under its increasingly exclusionary policies.
At the height of their power, Army of Islam militants had paraded prisoners captured from government areas in cages on pick-up trucks through the streets of Douma, including women, girls and members of Assad’s Alawite minority. The Army of Islam justified the tactic by saying it was designed to stop Assad’s relentless bombing campaign against civilians. But the scenes, which resembled the brutality of the extremist Islamic State group, showed how the powerful group was adopting the same abuses it had once revolted against.
Residents of Douma who recently evacuated the town spoke of a police state run by the militants. They said the fighters controlled took control of the area’s agriculture and ran several prisons where people were held and tortured.
“They were a state within a state,” said Mohammed al-Khaled, a 28-year-old Douma resident who left the town with his family late last month. “Douma was the republic of the Army of Islam.”
Speaking in the presence of local government officials in the Horjeli shelter, south of Damascus, Ammar Issam Sleik, an 18-year-old high school student said he was detained by Army of Islam members who suspected he was a government informer and took him to Tawba prison.
“I was taken blindfolded and held in solitary confinement in a cell where I hardly fit in it,” he said, adding that there was a hole in the tiny room to be used as a toilet.
He said that before alleged chemical weapons attacks in the past, Army of Islam members used to tell residents to expect them, distributing medical masks for people to put on.
Ibrahim al-Fawwal, a resident, said he left Douma in 2015 because he couldn’t bear living under the Army of Islam. He fled, he said, “so I wouldn’t end up hating the revolution.”
From exile, he followed his hometown’s suffering.
“I died with its people every day and choked on the chlorine,” he wrote in the al-Jumhuriya online newspaper. “And now I am displaced today with its people, closing a page on this town that was so inspirational, with its once peaceful activism and its diversity, with its bad and its good.”
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Bassem Mroue in Damascus contributed to this report.