On Tuesday in the Idlib province of Syria, a chemical attack killed dozens of people in a rebel-held area. The area, Khan Sheikhoun, where the attack took place is not held by the Islamic State, but by Qaeda-linked militants and a variety of other rebel groups. This attack will be marked as one of the worst of its kind in Syria’s six-year civil war.
NBC news has reported that at least “83 people died – including 25 children – and at least 350 others were injured.” However, the current number is unknown and the death rates are increasing. Witnesses to the attack said it began after sunrise. Moreover, there were numerous graphic videos and photographs posted online showing children and adults being tortured and killed.
A resident of Khan Sheikhoun, where the attack took place, witnessed an aircraft drop a bomb on a one-story building a few dozen yards away. The resident, Mariam, only 14 years old described the reaction of the bomb as a yellow mushroom cloud “like a winter fog.” In addition, she said that when residents arrived by car to help the wounded “they inhaled the gas and died.”
The Syrian government denied any involvement and said it was complying with the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which banned such instruments from war. Instead, the government blamed “armed terrorist organizations” for the attack.
A US Senior State Department official said that the attack appeared to be a war crime. He called on Russia and Iran to restrain President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from carrying out further chemical strikes. Fadi Halisso, a former Syrian priest who runs Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a humanitarian organization that aids Syrian and Palestinian refugees, said on Twitter that “Today’s chemical attack was a direct insult to the #EU.”
Meanwhile, the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations reported that the priority was to focus on getting Assad out. However, an official said that it appeared that Russia was unable or unwilling to hold the Syrian government to the agreed ceasefire.
Since President Trump took office, this chemical attack is one of the worst atrocities attributed to the Syrian government. This atrocity poses a policy dilemma for the Trump administration, who are interested in shifting their focus from Syria to fighting the Islamic State.
Unfortunately, chlorine gas attacks have become almost routine in northern Syria. However, this chemical attack was different as this time people collapsed outdoors in much larger numbers. The symptoms were also different and were reflective of nerve agents and other banned toxins. The oppositions Minister of Health, Mohamad Firas al-Jundi, reported that the symptoms included fluid in the lungs with foam coming from the mouth, suffocation, unconsciousness, spasms, and paralysis.
With that said, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has found that the Syrian government used chlorine gas as a weapon three times in 2014 and 2015, which violated Syria’s treaty.