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The city of Douma was recently the target of a chemical weapon attack. The current perpetrator of the attack is unknown, but the Syrian government is held as a suspect due to a series of recent attacks on the city after the reignition of hostilities. The attack consisted of a chlorine bomb alongside another unidentified gas dropped upon the city. Already there have been as many as 70 confirmed deaths; it has also been reported by White Helmet rescuers within Douma that the majority of lives that have been lost in this attack have been women and children.
The White Helmets, a group of rescuers who have been sent in to aid civilians in opposition-held areas, are the ones most directly involved in aid work within Douma. Leader Raed al-Saleh reported on the dire situation facing the city, stating that “Douma has been subject to intense air strikes and much of the city is destroyed.” However, the White Helmets were not the only ones helping civilians in the troubled city. In an interview with Al Jazeera Moayed al-Dayrani, the medical volunteer operating in Douma, spoke about the challenges facing doctors, saying that “We are currently dealing with more than 1000 cases of people struggling to breathe after the chlorine barrel bomb was dropped on the city. The number of dead will probably rise even further.”
Regardless of whether or not the government had been involved, the attack on the city of Douma with chemical weaponry is an action that completely goes against international law. Chlorine bombs are extremely hazardous to individuals, damaging the respiratory systems of anyone exposed to high enough concentrations. Short-term exposure is enough to cause irritation to the skin and eyes, while long-term exposure is capable of scarring the body via chemical burns. Despite the use of one of these weapons on a civilian population, the White Helmets and other individuals’ responses to the situation is to be commended, especially considering the diminishing amount of aid daring to enter the occupied territory.
The use of chemical weapons (CWs), particularly those capable of inducing asphyxiation in targets, are prohibited under international law. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was passed, outlawing the use of chemical and biological weapons in conflicts, and has been in effect to this date. One of the main bodies for preventing that kind of weaponry has been the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which became active in 1997. Syria is not only a member of this organization, but in 2013, they signed the Chemical Weapons Convention which documented their agreement to destroy their weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The use of these lethal WMDs marks a troubling turn in a conflict that has already had a substantial cost in human life. Given the Syrian government’s troubled history with using chemical weaponry, especially after the incident last year in Khan Shaykhun, it is understandable that others would be suspicious of their involvement. Given the recent resumption of hostilities by the Syrian government in light of a shelling attack in Damascus that some have held Jaish al-Islam responsible for, it may be possible that the chlorine bomb and other CWs were employed in an attempt to accelerate the exodus of the forces of al-Islam from what remains in the city. However, until further information is made available, it remains uncertain whether the chemical attack had been perpetrated at the behest of the Syrian government or by another agent.