Country Wire

    Flashpoint Syria: Syrian government accused of chemical attack




    Middle East: Syria
     
    Flashpoint Syria: Syrian government accused of chemical attack
     
    Summary
     
    In April 2018, there were reports of an apparent chemical attack on the rebel stronghold of Douma. The attack ensued after an extended offensive by Syrian government forces on Eastern Ghouta (as discussed above), with the government determined to reclaim control of the rebel stronghold, Douma.  The aid and humanitarian group, Syrian Civil Defense, released videotaped footage of children suffocating. Subsequent gruesome video footage by opposition activists appeared to show the dead bodies of suffocation victims.  Blame was placed on the Assad regime, however, Syrian authorities, along with their Russian and Iranian backers, denied the claim.  While there was no way for jounalists to immediately and independently report on the events ensuing in Douma, Western powers expressed alarm at the prospect of a possible chemical attack.

    Introduction
     
    Since early 2011, anti-government protests have spread and escalated across the Arab world; Syria emerged as an addition to the list of countries experiencing unrest in March 2011. At first, protesters stopped short of demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, instead demanding greater political freedom and efforts to end corruption. For his part, President Assad announced he would advance a reform agenda, which would include lifting the emergency laws that had been in place for decades, and increased rights to the country's disenfranchised Kurdish population. These moves were aimed at quelling the rising climate of unrest gripping the country. But over time, as protests continued, and as the Assad regime carried out a hardline crackdown on dissent, tensions escalated between the government and the protesters.
     
    In mid-2011, the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League respectively issued condemnations of the violence in Syria. As well, the United Nations Human Rights Council called for an independent inquiry into the violent crackdown on dissent. Meanwhile, global leaders were calling for President Assad to step down from power, given the brutality of the Syrian regime's crackdown on protesters.  
     
    In 2012, the bloody crackdown by the Assad regime on anti-government protesters was ongoing. In fact, the crackdown appeared to become more relentless in places such as Homs and Aleppo. Despite widespread condemnation from the West, a United Nations Security Resolution on the situation in Syria was subject to veto by Russia and China. A subsequent vote in the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned Syria for its brutal crackdown. A prevailing truce, brokered by the joint United Nations/Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, was established in the interests of preventing further bloodshed; however, it was revealed to be an exercise in theory rather than practice and eventually the United Nations monitoring mission ended in failure.
     
    Syria has meanwhile been subject to sanctions by various countries and was sliding into pariah status in the international community. Assassinations, alleged  massacres, geopolitical tensions with Turkey and Israel,  and  suspicions about the use of chemical weapons, have since mired the Syrian landscape.  Indeed,  with it was increasingly clear that with President Bashar al-Assad using brutal tactics to quell the uprising  served only to create an even more tumultuous landscape, and eventually set the path for a full-blown civil war.    That civil war pitted the Assad forces, backed by Lebanon-based Hezbollah, against  a disparate cabal of anti-government entities, ranging from the rebel Free Syrian Army to several Islamist terrorist enclaves.
     
    At the same time, Syria  was facing a devastating humanitarian crisis.  That crisis reached new heights in August 2013 with claims that Syrian forces launched a chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus.  Although this was the clear sign that United States President Barack Obama's "red line" had definitively been crossed, the international community remained reticent about becoming more involved in the Syrian crisis. Ultimately, an  ensuing chemical weapons deal with Syria between the United States and Russia quieted the war drums.   In the meantime, though, a  highly anticipated  peace summit in Geneva ended without yielding any productive results and the civil war in Syria raged on and on.
     
    By mid-2014, while Syria had shown progress in its disposal of chemical toxins, in keeping with an international agreement intended to avoid intervention by the West, the country was dealing with an ascendant "Islamic State."  Previously known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS as well as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, this group self-declared a caliphate extending from Syria to Iraq.   It was apparent that the power vacuum from the Syrian civil war provided a breeding ground for extremism that Islamic State could exploit and use to both challenge the Assad regime and function as a recruitment tool for Jihadists.  Whereas the West and regional powers in the Middle East had earlier called for an end to the Assad regime, suddenly the geopolitical stakes were quite different as extremist terrorists were now posing the most dangerous threat to regional stability.  The barbaric beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic State in their stronghold in Syria changed the calculus and the Obama administration in the United States -- initially reticent about re-engaging in the Middle East -- was now looking at a targeted anti-terrorism strategy in the Syrian-Iraqi landscape of Islamic State.  As such, a Western coalition, led by the United States, was soon carrying out air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.  Of note was the fact that the United States-led coalition expanded to include Japan and Jordan when citizens of their countries that were being held by Islamic State were also brutally killed.
     
    In 2015, Syria was beset by two sets of intersecting challenges -- the ongoing civil war between the Assad regime and rebel forces on one end, and the horrific dangers posed by the notorious terror group, Islamic State, which had seized wide swaths of territory in Syria and left an appalling death toll.  It was generally understood that the civil war conditions in Syria, to some extent, facilitated the emergence of Islamic State in  that country.  Syrian President Assad's priority to hold onto power, and thus the center of power in Damascus, had allowed a power chasm to flourish in other parts of the country, which Islamic State has been able to exploit.  The result has been a mass exodus of Syrians fleeing the country and seeking refuge in Europe.  The so-called migrant influx in  Europe has raised questions as to how to legally and humanely deal with a burgeoning humanitarian refugee crisis.
     
    At the political level, Russia signaled it would be entering the Syrian crisis militarily in September 2015 although it was unclear if Moscow's goal was to  bolster and preserve Bashar al-Assad's hold on power, or, to go after Islamic State.  
     
    The geopolitical landscape was complicated in October 2015 with the news that the United States would be deploying special operations teams to Syria.  The scene in November 2015 was grave as Russia and France intensified their efforts to go after Islamic State targets in Syria following devastating terror attacks by the Islamist terror network that killed hundreds of Russian and French citizens.   Russia, France, and the United States were now respectively changing their respective calculations, cognizant that the Islamist terror group was no longer simply seeking to build its Caliphate but, instead, transposing its goals to more of an Islamic Jihadist orientation.  The result was a global security crisis.
     
    In December 2015, in the aftermath of an appalling Islamic State-inspired massacre in California in the United States, President Barack Obama augmented special operations teams in the region with an eye on strategically targeting Islamic State.  Also on the agenda in December 2015 and well into January 2016 was a renewed push for peace in Syria, with the goal being a stabilized country where terrorism would not be able to flourish with impunity.
     
    In the first few months of 2016, all eyes were on the peace process for Syria, as well as a fragile cessation of hostilities aimed at facilitating a settlement.  Meanwhile, Russia announced it would be withdrawing from Syria although it continued to carry out air strikes supportive to the Assad regime.  For its part, pro-Assad forces were making gains against all groups opposed to Assad rule, including Islamic State.  Of note was the recapture of the heritage city Palmyra; Also of note in this period was the United States' announcement that its effort against Islamic State was going well, as marked by the elimination of the terror group's second in command.
     
    In the spring of 2016, the Syrian city of Aleppo was being  struck by massive aerial bombardment with a devastating death toll on the city's population.  It was to be seen how this development would affect the already-fragile peace process.
     
    By the late summer of 2016, the Kurdish YPG  militia had launched a major assault on the key city of Hasaka to oust the Syrian army.
     
    In September 2016, the United States and Russia announced that a ceasefire had been reached to bring an end to the bloodshed of the Syrian civil war.  
     
    More than a year later in October of 2017, United States-led forces announced a significant breakthrough, declaring they had seized control of the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.  The loss of control over Raqqa signaled the effective end of Islamic State's claim to hold sway over a caliphate.  While the terror group was still in operation, it was now denied the claim of being home to a hardline Islamist caliphate -- a known "draw" for militants across the world. 
     
    In February 2018, the Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad carried out a brutal assault on the region of Eastern Ghouta close to Damascus. During the intense aerial bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, which was believed to be a rebel stronghold, at least 500 civilians were killed, including at least 120 children, according to the  Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  With barrel bombs and shell fire raining down on the region, close to 400,000 people were believed to be trapped there.  A United Nations ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian aid as well as the safe passage of residents out of the area was proving to be fragile at best, and non existent at times.  The operation on Eastern Ghouta by Syrian forces continued for weeks after. 

    In April 2018, there were reports of an apparent chemical attack on the rebel stronghold of Douma. The attack ensued after an extended offensive by Syrian government forces on Eastern Ghouta (as discussed above), with the government determined to reclaim control of the rebel stronghold, Douma.  The aid and humanitarian group, Syrian Civil Defense, released videotaped footage of children suffocating. Subsequent gruesome video footage by opposition activists appeared to show the dead bodies of suffocation victims.  Blame was placed on the Assad regime, however, Syrian authorities, along with their Russian and Iranian backers, denied the claim.  While there was no way for jounalists to immediately and independently report on the events ensuing in Douma, Western powers expressed alarm at the prospect of a possible chemical attack.
     
    Syria Civil War: Assault on Eastern Ghouta
     
    In February 2018, the Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad carried out a brutal assault on the region of Eastern Ghouta close to Damascus. During the intense aerial bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, at least 500 civilians were killed, including at least 120 children, according to the  Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  With barrel bombs and shell fire raining down on the region, including  Douma and Zamalka, close to 400,000 people were believed to be trapped there. 
     
    It should be noted that the region of Eastern Ghouta was regarded as a rebel stronghold.  But the actual rebels of  Eastern Ghouta were a disparate lot, not all aligned in ideology or goals, and in fact, often ensconced in battles against one another.  Among them were Jihadists, such as those belonging to Jaish al-Islam,  as well as Faylaq al-Rahman, which has allied with the al-Qaida linked al-Nusra Front. 
     
    Monitors on the ground have asserted that the aerial bombardment of Eastern Ghouta was being carried out by Assad's forces, backed by the Russian military.  Indeed, the use of Russian warplanes was reported by the  Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.  However, the Russian government has denied any direct involvement in the assault on Ghouta.  
     
    For its part, the Syrian government was denying an active campaign to target civilians, the death toll notwithstanding.  Instead, Damascus has insisted that it was targeting the rebels in the area, asserting that they were going after terrorists. 
     
    That explanation did not resonate positively with the wider international community.  Instead, world leaders  condemned the civilian death toll, while United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres characterized the situation in Eastern Gouta as "hell on earth." 
     
    Despite this alarming characterization by Secretary General Guterres, the United Nations was not making much progress ameliorating the so-called "hell on earth."  In fact, the process of forging international consensus to resolve the crisis was proving to be a slow moving endeavor.  The United Nations Security Council eventually commenced debate on a resolution providing for a 30-day ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian aid as well as safe passage out of the area for residents seeking refuge elsewhere.
     
    The drafting of the resolution was obstructed somewhat by Russian insistence that the ceasefire apply to all groups posing a threat to Damascus.  To this end, Islamic State, al-Qaida, and al-Nusra Front, which were not named in the original draft, would have to be included, according to the Russians.   As well, Russia was reluctant to specify a date when the ceasefire would commence. As such, the plan for the ceasefire to begin 72 hours after the adoption of the resolution was changed to the more amorphous demand that it start “without delay.” 
     
    There were some suggestions that the difficulties being posed by the Russians were actually strategic, with Moscow intent on giving Damascus extra time to complete its mission of subduing Eastern Ghouta. To this end, Nikki Haley, the United States  Ambassador to the United Nations, declared: “As they dragged out the negotiation, the bombs from Assad’s fighter jets continued to fall. In the three days it took us to adopt this resolution, how many mothers lost their kids to the bombing and shelling?” 
     
    The reality was that the Assad regime was focused on regaining control over Syrian territory, and with Eastern Ghouta's close proximity to Damascus, it was clearly a high value target for the Syrian government.  Clearly, the Assad regime would want to foreclose the possibility of rebels carrying out attacks on the capital. 
     
    By Feb. 24, 2018, the United Nations Security Council finally issued a resolution authorizing a 30-day truce across Syria. 
     
    The actual efficacy of the ceasefire was a matter of debate given the Syrian government's stance.  At the United Nations, Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja‘afari made the following assertion: “We’re combating terrorism on our territories.  Our government will reserve the right to respond as it deems appropriate in case those terrorist arms groups are targeting civilians in any part of Syria with even one single missile."  This statement telegraphed the message that Damascus would find ways to continue its assault on Eastern Ghouta. 
     
    Other groups were delivering their own caveats to the ceasefire.  For example, two main rebel factions in the area -- Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman -- both signed onto the truce, but they simultaneously  warned that they were reserving their right to respond if they  came under attack. 
     
    Russian  Ambassador to the United Nations  Vassily Nebenzia warned that the ceasefire would not prove to be particularly useful without commitments from the various groups operating on the ground.  He said, “What is necessary is for the demands of the Security Council to be underpinned by concrete on the ground agreements.” 
     
    Nebenzia's warning proved to be prescient. In the immediate aftermath of the unanimous vote by the Security Council, jets continued to pound Eastern Ghouta. First responders, meanwhile, warned that there was little evidence of the ceasefire being in effect, making the rescue of victims, the tally of corpses, and the delivery of humanitarian aid almost impossible.  
     
    By Feb. 25, 2018, air strikes were continuing in the area of Douma in Eastern Ghouta.  As such, France and Germany were urging  Russia to place pressure on the Assad regime in Syria to honor the ceasefire.  But the assault on Eastern Ghouta was relentless and continuing for weeks after. 
     
    Syrian Crisis: Syrian government accused of chemical attack in Douma

    April 2018 was marked by an apparent chemical attack on the rebel stronghold of Douma.  The apparent chemical attack ensued after an extended offensive by Syrian government forces on Eastern Ghouta, with the government determined to reclaim control of the rebel stronghold, Douma.   Suspicion fell on the Assad regime in Syria as being the likely culprits although it denied these claims. 

    At issue in April 2018 was the fact that the aid and humanitarian group, Syrian Civil Defense, released videotaped footage of children suffocating after a suspected chemical attack in the rebel-held Syrian suburb of Douma. Subsequent gruesome video footage by opposition activists appeared to show the dead bodies of suffocation victims.  

    Reports indicated that after the apparent chemical attack in Douma, scores of victims flooded medicate facilities suffering from respiratory crisis and burning eyes. Dozens of victims -- women and children included -- died from their ailments.  Indeed, rescue workers in Syria reported that the bodies of more than 40 people were discovered in their homes -- vicrims of what seemed to be suffocation. 

    It should be noted that anti-Assad activists have disseminated videotaped footage of the bodies of people -- adults and children alike --  discovered on floors with white foam being emitted from their mouths and noses.  

    In truth, with journalists not positioned on the battlefield with the kind of access needed to report directly on the claims of a chemical attack, the allegations would yet have to be verified. 

    That being said, the Syrian Civil Defense and the Syrian American Medical Society, which runs medical facilities in rebel-held areas of Syria issued a joint statement asserting that more than 500 people had sought medical attention, presenting “with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.” The symptoms included including respiratory issues, burning eyes, foaming from the mouth and nostril, and the “emission of a chlorine-like odor.” The joint statement furthermore asserted: “The reported symptoms indicate that the victims suffocated from the exposure to toxic chemicals."

    Aid and humanitarian groups on the ground placed the blame on the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.  Syrian authorities denied the claim, with state media accusing the Army of Islam -- the Islamist extremist rebel entity that controls Douma -- of manufacturaing the footage in order to curry favor with the international community.  Meanwhile, Russian authorities, who back the Asssad regime in Syria, also denied that chemical weapons were used.  Likewise, Bahram Qasemi, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, suggested the reports of a gas attack in Syria were not credible and, instead, “an excuse” by the United States and Western countries to take military action against Syria. 

    On the other side of the equation, most Western powers reacted with alarm and outrage. The United Kingdom's Foreign Office demanded an investigation and declared that if the use of chemical weapons was verified, it would be “further proof of Assad’s brutality.”  Frence Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed deep concern over the apparent chemical attack and demanded that an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council be convened. In the United States, President Donald Trump reacted via the social media outlet, Twitter, characterizing the shocking event as  “mindless CHEMICAL attack” on victims and promising consequences as he tweeted: “Big Price.” 

    Trump took the opportunity to attack former President Barack Obama's decision not to respond militarily to the Syrian government's crossing of his own "Red Line" in using chemical weapons.  Trump tweeted: “If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!”  But Trump faced criticism from a leading senator within his own Republican Party, with John McCain accusing the president of telegraphing the United states exit from Syria, thus emboldening the Syrian regime. 

    Action by the United States would require a political balancing act since the use of  chemical weapons would have to be proved, and action would contradict Trump's recent statement that he wanted a United States exit from Syria.

    The claims of the chemical attack in Douma occurred after weeks of an offensive by the Syrian government in Eastern Gouta (discussed above).  With Douma being a remaining rebel stronghold, it was at the top of  the government's target list, with the Assad regime making clear that it had the intention of retaking control of Douma. 

    The claims of the chemical attack in Douma occurred after several weeks of an extended offensive by the Syrian government in Eastern Gouta (discussed above). After a massive assault by Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian forces for weeks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 1,600 people in the area had died, and tens of thousands were displaced as they were forced to flee the crossfire of violence. With Douma being a remaining rebel stronghold, it was at the top of  the government's target list, with the Assad regime making clear that it had the intention of retaking control of Douma. 

    Given the appalling nature of the events in Douma, an international response was in the offing with the United Nations Security Council holding an emergency meeting on April 9, 2018.  

    It should be noted that the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that her country  "will respond" to the suspected chemical attack in Syria, regardless of whether there was action from the United Nations Security Council. For his part, United States President Donald Trump vowed forceful action in response to the "barbaric" attack in Syria, noting that his country had "a lot of options militarily" to consider.  He affirmed a response from the United States, asserting, “But we can’t let atrocities like we all witnessed ... we can’t let that happen in our world ... especially when we’re able to because of the power of the United States, the power of our country, we’re able to stop it.”


     


    Copyright 2018 CountryWatch, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
    No portion of CountryWatch content can ever be reproduced or republished without expressed written consent from CountryWatch Editor in Chief.