Syria chemical weapons: Idlib province attack holds uncanny resemblance to 2013 Damascus incident

The United States blasted a Syrian air base with a barrage of cruise missiles Thursday night in fiery retaliation for this week's gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians. President Donald Trump cast the US assault as vital to deter future use of poison gas and called on other nations to join in seeking "to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria."

It was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Trump's most dramatic military order since becoming president just over two months ago. The strikes also risk thrusting the US deeper into an intractable conflict that his predecessor spent years trying to avoid.

Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4

Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria on 4 April. Reuters

Around 60 Tomahawk missiles hit the Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs, a small installation with two runways, where aircraft often take off to bomb targets in northern and central Syria. They were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, in retaliation for Tuesday's deadly chemical attack that officials said used chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, possibly sarin.

At least 86 people, including 27 children, died in the suspected attack in Khan Sheikhun. Results from post-mortems performed on victims point to exposure to the deadly sarin nerve agent, according to Turkish health officials. The attack happened in Syria's Idlib province about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government — a close ally of Syria's rebels — set up a decontamination centre at a border crossing in Hatay province, where the victims were treated initially.

Victims showed signs of nerve gas exposure, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation, the World Health Organisation and Doctors Without Borders said. Paramedics used fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.

Syria's government denied it carried out any chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, but Russia's Defense Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the town's eastern outskirts.

Doctors said victims showed symptoms consistent with the use of a nerve agent such as sarin — suspected to have been used by government forces in deadly attacks outside Damascus in 2013. US officials have not said what kind of agent they think was used, but Trump said it was "a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was."

If confirmed to be a chemical attack, this would be among the worst such incidents in Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 320,000 people since it began in March 2011.

The 4 April attack holds an uncanny resemblance to 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead and prompted an agreement brokered by the US and Russia to disarm Assad's chemical stockpile. Western nations blamed government forces for that attack, where effects were concentrated in opposition-held areas.

According to a US intelligence report up to 1,429 were killed in chemical weapons strikes allegedly carried out by Syrian troops near Damascus. Many were reported to have suffered from convulsions, pinpoint pupils, and foaming at the mouth. UN investigators had visited the sites and determined that ground-to-ground missiles had been loaded with sarin that were fired on civilian areas while residents slept.

Syria officially relinquished its chemical arsenal and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 to avert military action after it was accused of an attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds. Syria agreed to hand over all its previously-undeclared stock of chemical weapons for destruction by The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Chlorine, which has legitimate uses as well, isn't banned under that convention except when used in a weapon. But nerve agents like sarin are banned in all circumstances.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the civil war but there have been repeated allegations of chemical weapons use by the government since, with a UN-led investigation pointing the finger at the regime for at least three chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015.

The OPCW had claimed in June 2014 to have removed the last of the Syrian government's chemical weapons. However, Syrian opposition officials maintained that the government's stocks were not fully accounted for and that it retained supplies. Chemical weapons have killed hundreds of people since the start of the conflict, with the UN blaming three attacks on the Syrian government and a fourth on the Islamic State group.

With inputs from agencies


Published Date: Apr 07, 2017 12:28 pm | Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 12:42 pm

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