Beirut (Lebanon) (AFP) – As Western leaders consider military action over a suspected poison gas attack in Syria — with US President Donald Trump leading the charge — chemical weapons inspectors are due to start work in the country on Saturday.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed that a fact-finding mission team is on its way to Syria and due to begin its probe almost a week after the alleged attack.
Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May have been categorical in saying the attack took place. Damascus and its allies Russia and Iran have denied any use of chemical weapons, with Moscow suggesting the attack was staged to prompt international military action.
Much is still not clear about what happened on Saturday in the town of Douma, access to which is controlled by the regime, making it extremely difficult for journalists to independently verify claims. But here’s what we know so far:
– Douma, the last rebel-held town in the onetime opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, was under intense bombardment on April 7 after Russian-brokered talks on the evacuation of the Jaish al-Islam Islamist group had stalled.
– At approximately 4:00 pm, an air strike hit near a bakery on Omar bin Al-Khattab street in Douma in a first attack that caused breathing difficulties, according to several monitors including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Two other monitors, the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Violations Documentation Centre, said it appeared chlorine may have been used.
– At approximately 7:30 pm, a second strike hit near Martyrs’ Square in the Numan area, apparently using chlorine and, based on symptoms shown by the victims including foaming at the mouth and burning of the cornea, another more potent chemical such as sarin, according to the monitors and medical experts.
– A doctor interviewed by AFP the next day said waves of patients began to arrive on Saturday evening, many of them with breathing difficulties and “there was a strong smell of chlorine”.
– Several witnesses spoke to AFP after their evacuation from Douma, largely corroborating the circumstances and describing similar symptoms. One of them was a 51-year-old man who gave his name as Abu Mohammed: “I was coming up the stairs from the basement and got an indescribable tightness in the chest, inability to breathe, and headache… I went back downstairs and started splashing water on myself, wiping my face, and splashing more water.”
– By Sunday morning, Syria’s government and its ally Russia announced a deal was reached for the town’s evacuation. Jaish al-Islam confirmed the deal days later, saying the alleged chemical attack had forced them to accept Russia’s terms. Thousands of rebels and civilians have been bussed out of Douma, including Jaish al-Islam’s chief, and rebels have surrendered their heavy weapons.
How many people were allegedly exposed and died?
– Tens of thousands of civilians remained in the town, with many having spent weeks in shelters and basements after regime forces, backed by Russia, launched a major offensive to retake Eastern Ghouta in February.
– Monitors, rescuers and medical groups have given varying tolls for the number of people affected by the attack but have all reported hundreds exposed and dozens dead. The White Helmets civil defence organisation and Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said 500 cases of suspected exposure to chemical substances were observed and more than 40 people killed. The Britain-based Observatory said at least 21 people were killed and 70 suffered breathing difficulties. The World Health Organization said based on reports from local partners: “More than 70 people sheltering in basements have reportedly died, with 43 of those deaths related to symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals.”
– Graphic pictures and videos shared on social media, including by activists and the White Helmets, showed piles of bodies on the floors of shelters and entire families lying dead, their mouths and noses covered with foam. One of the videos showed a large number of bodies spread across several rooms in what appeared to be a residential building, indicating that many of the deaths may have been from a localised strike. Other videos showed victims including children being treated for breathing problems and hosed down. It has not been possible to independently verify the contents of these videos.
Who was responsible?
– Opponents said the attack was only the latest use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has repeatedly been accused of using sarin, chlorine and poison gases during the country’s seven-year civil war. The OPCW has confirmed the use of sarin gas in an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun a year ago that left dozens dead. UN inspectors also confirmed the use of sarin in a 2013 attack near Damascus, including Ghouta, that killed hundreds.
– Aircraft observers from the Sentry Syria network, which is linked to the White Helmets, observed military helicopters and warplanes heading southwest from the Dumayr airbase near Damascus in the direction of Douma. The observers saw them above the town around the time of the second attack, according to open source investigation website Bellingcat.
– A video shared by the White Helmets after the alleged attack shows a large yellow canister, apparently on the roof of the building where most of the bodies were found. A second video shared on social media shows a similar canister that appears to have crashed through a wall into a bedroom at an undisclosed location. Both appear to be compressed gas cylinders. The contents of the videos have not yet been verified.
– Syria’s regime and its allies Moscow and Tehran have denied any use of chemical weapons in Douma on Saturday, accusing opposition activists of fabricating reports in order to win support from the West. Regime supporters have said its forces already had the upper hand in the battle to retake Ghouta and there was no reason for it to take the risk of deploying chemical weapons.
– Moscow and Damascus suggested in recent months that Syria’s rebels, who have been steadily losing ground since Russia intervened in 2015 to support the regime, were preparing a “provocation” to prompt Western military action. The Russian military said Friday it had proof Britain had ordered the White Helmets, accused by Moscow of being a front for jihadists, to “stage” the attack. Online, regime supporters have rushed to discredit the rescue force by posting pictures that appear to show the first responders on a film set. It later emerged the photographs were from the set of a Syrian government-sponsored film about opposition groups fabricating a chemical attack.
What could investigators find?
– Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Moscow’s military specialists had already visited the site and “did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance”. A video released by the Russian defence ministry showed a Russian military police vehicle and personnel in the area. It has offered to take the investigators to the area of the alleged attack, where Russian military police are deployed.
– The OPCW has been tight-lipped about how exactly its investigators will work, saying it does not disclose “operational details” of its investigations in order to preserve their integrity. Damascus, which invited the investigators in to Douma, has said it will cooperate with the probe.
– The Hague-based body has however outlined its usual modus operandi: “Members of the team may take chemical, environmental and biomedical samples for analysis on-site or off-site at an OPCW-designated laboratory. Team members may also interview victims, eyewitnesses and medical personnel and participate in autopsies.” It adds that the inspection team is expected to send a situation report within 24 hours of starting its work, a preliminary report within 72 hours of returning to The Netherlands and a final report within 30 days.