Syria chemical weapon attack kills 70: A brief history of Bashar al-Assad and his war on his own citizens

An image by Edlib Media Center, Syrian anti-government activist group, rocked the world as reports said that a suspected chemical weapon attack killed at least 70, including 20 children, in rebel-held northwestern Syria. "There were also 17 women among the dead and the death toll could rise further because there are people missing," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP. Heartbreaking images of desperate patient, weeping children and dead civilians in Syria are, unfortunately, too familiar.

If confirmed, it would be one of the worst chemical attacks since Syria's civil war began six years ago. It was the third claim of a chemical attack in just over a week in Syria. The previous two were reported in Hama province, in an area not far from Khan Sheikhoun. A few hours later, Syrian warplanes launched another airstrike on one of the medical clinics where victims of the first attack were being treated, the The New York Times reported.

 Syria chemical weapon attack kills 70: A brief history of Bashar al-Assad and his war on his own citizens

This photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center on Tuesday, shows victims of a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. AP

World leaders across the world, including US president Donald Trump and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, went on to record to say that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was "undoubtedly" behind the heinous act. Trump called on to Russia and Iran and asked them to stop recurrence of what many are calling a war crime. Assad, who reportedly renounced all chemical weapons four years ago said that it was not his government which attacked the civilians as he has done every time chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Syria's opposition also blamed President Bashar al-Assad's forces, saying the attack cast doubt on the future of peace talks. The army denied any involvement in a statement blaming "terrorist groups" for using "chemical and toxic substances".

As the Syrian military accused the rebels for causing the "war crime", reports said that the magnitude of Tuesday's attack was evident that the Syrian government carried out the attacks. "...only the Syrian military had the ability and the motive to carry out an aerial attack like the one that struck the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun," The New York Times report said. According to this article in Vox, there are no good guys in the ongoing and seemingly unending civil war in Syria, as even the rebels have been accused of atrocious war crimes. However, Tuesday's attack or similar attacks in the past couldn't have been carried out without the assistance from the ruling government.

Photos and video emerging from Khan Sheikhoun, located south of the provincial capital of Idlib, showed the limp bodies of children and adults. Some were struggling to breathe; others appeared to be foaming at the mouth. Chemical weapons have killed hundreds of people since the start of Syria's civil war six years ago, with the United Nations blaming three attacks on the Syrian government and a fourth on the Islamic State. Syrian rebels and opposition activists said that pro-government forces have used chemical weapons and bombs containing chlorine on numerous occasions.

In July 2012, Syria finally acknowledged that the government possessed chemical weapons, which a foreign ministry spokesman said would be used only against "external aggression." A month later President Obama drew his famous "red line." Even though there were several reports in the coming months which blamed Assad regime of using chemical weapons, it was only in August 2013 when the US government assessment said it was "highly likely" Assad's government was responsible.

The first major chemical weapon attack occured in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, in 2013. The rebel-controlled Ghouta suburbs near Damascus were bombed on 21 August, 2013 with a powerful nerve agent known as Sarin, killing many hundreds of civilians, including children, in the most lethal chemical attack since Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988. Assad had at that time protested that he was innocent, but he was up against a mass of compelling circumstantial evidence and failed to produce any convincing alternative theory.

In a 22-page report prepared by the Human Rights Watch, Attacks on Ghouta: Analysis of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria, the HRW analysed witness accounts of the rocket attacks, information on the likely source of the attacks, the physical remnants of the weapon systems used, and the medical symptoms exhibited by the victims as documented by medical staff, and concluded that it was a state-sponsored attack.


Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, was quoted as saying, "Rocket debris and symptoms of the victims from the August 21 attacks on Ghouta provide telltale evidence about the weapon systems used. This evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus suburbs that terrible morning." Assad and his government, as expected, denied any role in the brutal attacks and instead blamed the opposition, even though the Assad government was unable to produce any credible evidence to back up its claims.

The HRW, back then, even looked into Assad government's claim that the opposition is behind the attacks. The HRW, however, found such claims lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene. In an interview in 2015 to French television since the start of the Syrian civil war, Assad claimed that his government was not involved in the chemical attacks on Syrians. Public television channel France 2, in a 25-minute interview in 2015 with the Syrian president, showed Assad denying gassing his own people. "This is not proof," Assad said and added that he had never seen such methods be employed by the Syrian army. Asked if he was implying the images have been faked, Assad replied their authenticity should be "verified."

Since 2012, the Assad government has been accused of several chemical attacks in Syria (see the timeline below for reference) and Assad's future role is a key sticking point — the rebels and their international backers demand that he must step down. But Assad refuses to budge and his key ally in Moscow has backed him to the hilt against the rebels and shows no sign of changing tack. More than 4 million Syrians have been displaced since the civil war began almost six years ago.

Brazenness and the scale of Tuesday's assault has now threatened to subvert a nominal cease-fire, which is often violated — that had taken hold in parts of the country since Assad's Army retook the northern city of Aleppo in December with the help of Russians, emboldening the Syrian leader to think he could win the war.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 08:19:44 IST