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What We Know About the Suspected Chemical Weapon Attack In East Ghouta

Syria Deeply answers some of the big questions surrounding the suspected poison gas attack in Douma last week, and the wider issue of chemical weapon use in Syria.

Written by Alessandria Masi, Hashem Osseiran Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Syrian government forces soldier walks over the rubble of buildings in the former rebel-held town of Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on April 11, 2018. YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Did a chemical attack happen in Syria?

The World Health Organization says approximately 70 people were killed in the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta on April 7. More than 40 victims demonstrated “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals.” Another 500 people were also treated for “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals,” including “severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to central nervous systems,” the WHO reported, citing local health partners in Douma.

The WHO, however, did not explicitly say a chemical attack took place, only that some patients may have been exposed to toxic chemicals.

An open-source investigation into the attack by Bellingcat, an investigation network, found some inconclusive evidence that a chemical attack may have taken place. Video footage showed a large compressed gas cylinder of a type used in previous chlorine attacks on top of a building where a large number of fatalities were documented, Bellingcat said.

Citing aircraft spotters, Bellingcat said two Mi-8 helicopters were reported to be heading southwest from the government-held Dumayr Airbase towards Douma, 30 minutes before the suspected chemical attack. Shortly before the alleged attack, two Mi-8 helicopters were spotted flying over Douma.

There are conflicting reports over who is responsible for the suspected gas attack, and over what type of substance was used. Syrian activists, the United Kingdom, the United States and France have held Damascus responsible for the attack on the town in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of that capital.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that France had proof the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack on Douma, but he did not specify what kind of evidence was available. British Prime Minister Theresa May has also said that “all indications” point to Syrian responsibility for the attack, while U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis said on Thursday that he believes a chemical attack did, in fact, take place. However, he cautioned, that the U.S. was still assessing evidence.

The Syrian government denied responsibility, and accused Jaish al-Islam, the rebel group controlling Douma at that time, of fabricating the attack. The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday accused the U.K. of staging a fake attack and said that images of the victims were fabricated with “Britain’s direct involvement.” Moscow previously said that experts from its military radiological, biological and chemical unit had not found traces of a poison gas attack in Douma.

Who is investigating the suspected chemical attack and what have they found so far?

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Thursday that its investigators were en route to Douma and that its fact-finding mission would start investigations on Saturday, April 14. This comes after both Russia and the Syrian government invited the international body to carry out investigations there.

The OPCW, however, has no formal role in identifying who is behind a suspected chemical attack. The primary role of investigators is to determine whether or not a chemical attack took place by collecting environmental samples, like soil, and biomedical samples, including blood from victims, that will be analyzed in the group’s laboratories.

Have there been chemical attacks in Syria before and who is responsible?

Since the start of the conflict, hundreds of attacks using toxic substances have been reported in Syria, suspected to have been carried out by a range of different groups. While not all attacks have been confirmed nor have the perpetrators been identified, reports have accused a number of different groups and claimed that a variety of substances had been used.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights said it has documented at least 214 attacks using toxic substances carried out by pro-government forces since December 2012.

However, chemical weapons in Syria didn’t make it to the forefront of coverage on the conflict until August 2013, when sarin gas attacks in the Damascus suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta killed at least 1,000 people.

In April 2017, a chemical attack took place in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, killing at least 91 people. An investigation by OPCW later confirmed that victims had been exposed to sarin gas. The report did not identify who was responsible for the attack.

SNHR said it has documented at least 11 attacks using chemical weapons carried out by pro-government forces after the attack in Khan Sheikhoun (prior to the recent report from Douma).

A year later, and three days before the suspected attack in Douma, Human Rights Watch said that it had documented and confirmed at least 85 chemical weapon attacks since August 2013. HRW said its findings confirmed that Syrian government forces had carried out 50 of those attacks, 42 of which were believed to have used chlorine and two that used sarin. Their report also found that the so-called Islamic State allegedly carried out two attacks using sulfur mustard (mustard gas), and non-state armed groups carried out at least one using chlorine.

Were all of Syria’s chemical weapons destroyed in 2013?

After the Sarin attack in August 2013, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution stating that the OPCW would oversee the “complete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment” in Syria. By June 2014, the last of Assad’s declared chemical weapons had been removed from Syria to be destroyed.

However, reports of toxic gas attacks did not cease and the international community continued to investigate the existence of chemical weapons in Syria.

In August 2015 the United Nations passed a resolution establishing the Joint Investigative Mechanism with the OPCW to “identify perpetrators using chemical weapons in Syria.” In November 2017, Russia blocked the extension of this mechanism.

What’s more, the United States and the European Union continue to impose sanctions on individuals connected to chemical attacks in Syria. In January 2017, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Syrian military officials for the first time “in connection with the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.”

Last month, the European Union imposed sanctions on four individuals for their alleged role in the “development and use of chemical weapons” against civilians in Syria, including “a high-ranking military official and three scientists” who work at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center.

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