This past Sunday, April 8, 2018, there was an alleged chemical attack on the rebel-controlled city of Douma, northeast of the capital Damascus. The alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria is pushing the world closer to a major war as Western nations threaten to strike Syria, while Syria and its allies, mainly Russia but also possibly China, are threatening to retaliate. What are the facts and what do we know is true, if anything?
Douma: the Last Rebel-Held Position in Eastern Ghouta
The city of Douma was one of the last rebel-held zones in Eastern Ghouta kept out of the Syrian government’s hands by Jaysh al-Islam, a rebel Islamic faction. The faction had entered into talks with Russia to try and reach a peaceful agreement, with little military action in the area for almost 10 days. The talks came to halt when both parties could not come to a solution.
Air strikes began once more on Friday, April 8, 2018. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around 70 civilians were killed in the bombings that took place on Friday and Saturday.
Chemical Attack in Ghouta
The culmination of the renewed fight was an alleged chemical attack that took Douma by surprise on Sunday. The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a Syrian opposition group, reported that at around 4 pm local time, a bomb filled with toxic substances was dropped from Syrian Air Force planes onto Douma. Other activists reported the smell of chlorine in the air. The same activists report that a second bomb of the same nature had been launched into one of Douma’s busiest squares at approximately 7:30 pm.
Shortly after this strike, a report from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) which is based in Ohio, claims that 500 people were rushed to medical center facilities with symptoms indicative of exposure to chemical agents. These symptoms included difficulty breathing, blue lips and skin, excessive foaming from the mouth, burnt corneas, and smelling of chlorine. According to medical and rescue groups, a majority of the patients were women and children.
A suspected chemical attack in Syria yesterday killed at least 70 people, rescue workers say. This is the aftermath. pic.twitter.com/SK6g8SCQqL
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) April 8, 2018
Response from the West
After these incidents made headlines in the West, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to express his anger about the chemical attack. In a series of tweets from his personal account, Trump condemned the attack and put the blame on Russia and Iran for “backing Animal Assad.”
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!
On Wednesday, President Trump threatened to send missiles to Syria in retaliation, as well as to serve as a response to Russian warnings that they would shoot down missiles aimed at the war-torn country. Trump wrote on his twitter numerous times that he would promise to stand against Russian forces in Syria, remarking that tensions between Russia and the U.S. had never been worse — not even during the Cold War.
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
On the other side of the Atlantic, Theresa May spoke to reporters in Birmingham saying, “The chemical weapons attack that took place on Saturday in Douma in Syria was a shocking and barbaric act.” The Prime Minister also stated that evidence points to the fact that Russia was behind these attacks, and that the U.K. would work together with its allies to punish those who ordered the dropping of the chemical-laced bombs on Sunday.
A poll conducted on Thursday by YouGov showed that 20 percent of British citizens support an air strike in Syria, with 43 percent of those polled opposing such a strike, leaving an undecided percentage of 34. Despite this result, May summoned ministers to discuss how to address this issue—with or without the use of force and military action.
So Theresa May admits she’s not sure who’s behind the awful chemical attack, but she’s going to bomb Syria anyway, without the backing of Parliament. This is about to be the start of a very tragic chapter in our history. Complete and utter madness. #NotInMyNameTheresaMay
— Rachael (@Rachael_Swindon) April 11, 2018
British people: We don’t know who was behind the chemical attack. We don’t want this war. Remember Iraq? #NotInMyNameTheresaMay
Theresa May: pic.twitter.com/mjuyBU3Lvk
— JOE Politics (@PoliticsJOE_UK) April 12, 2018
Standing with Britain and the U.S., nine other countries, including France, have requested an emergency United Nations Security Council Meeting. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says that the country will assume its responsibilities if it is proven that the Bashar Al-Assad regime was behind this chemical attack.
Response from Moscow
In response to the inflammatory tweets sent out by Trump since the day of the attacks, Russia warned President Trump not to take military action against Syria. During a U.N. Security Council emergency meeting that failed to initiate an inquiry into the suspected chemical attack of April 8, U.S. and Russian ambassadors clashed, the former attributing blame to Russia and the latter refusing it altogether.
“We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy. We support serious approaches. We continue to believe that it is important not to take steps that could harm an already fragile situation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax.
Moscow went on record claiming that the chemical attack had not happened at all, and was being fabricated in order to create civil support for military action in the region. The Kremlin puts the burden of the blame on the civil support group known as the White Helmets. In the same statement, the Ministry of Foreign Issues writes that this organization has “been proved more than once to be working hand in glove with the terrorists, as well as to other pseudo-humanitarian organizations headquartered in the U.K. and the U.S.”
Is there any undeniable evidence?
In our world of fake news, social media bots, fake social media accounts, and the relative ease it takes to create a video and distribute it online it’s hard to know what is real anymore. There is a war in Syria and that means in all likeliness both sides have the blood of innocent civilians on them.
We know for sure that the White Helmets are at least a highly questionable organization. There is ample evidence, on our own site, and elsewhere, of videos and photos of White Helmet workers celebrating with known terrorist organizations, of the White Helmets lying on Twitter, of White Helmet workers waving Al-Qaeda flags, carrying weapons and so on. Does that mean all White Helmet accounts of attacks are lies or that all White Helmet workers are terrorists, no. But it does mean any evidence coming from the White Helmets needs to be very carefully analyzed.
The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) also needs to be looked at with a critical eye. Veterans Today has a great article on SAMS. According to the article, “despite being based in the rustbelt of the US Midwest, SAMS get around –they held their 15th International Conference in Gaziantep, Turkey earlier this year. SAMS travel to Gaziantep under the protection of ISIS to hand out awards in the middle of the largest ISIS training and support facility”.
Doubt has also been cast on other organizations involved in the Syrian conflict including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In reality, all sides in a war are motivated to lie if it helps their side. If Syrian President Assad did gas his own people and was “Animal Assad” as Trump named him and the West portrays him, he would lie about it. At the same time, if rebels were losing the war and western nations had repeatedly threatened foreign involvement if Assad used chemical weapons, faking a chemical weapons attack makes perfect sense.
If Assad, was not an evil dictator, but rather the leader of a nation caught up in a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia while also preoccupied with fighting off terrorist organizations, gassing his own people makes no sense. Less than a week before the alleged chemical weapons attack, Trump instructed his military to begin planning to withdraw troops from Syria. The last alleged chemical weapons attack occurred in early April of 2017, again only a matter of days after the U.S. announced a major shift in foreign policy. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley made headlines around the world when she said: “You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told a small group of reporters.”
The only thing that is known is that nothing has been proven and more war means more innocent civilian lives lost.
Right now, the climate around the suspected chemical attack is tense and details are sparse. It seems that the Western allied forces, in particular, the United States, France, and Britain are sticking together in their version of “Animal Assad”. These countries attribute blame to the Russian-backed Bashar Al-Assad regime, and are in talks to come up with a response to the event.
Until there is an investigation lead by a reputable non-governmental institution, tensions are unlikely to dissipate. With Russia, Iran and Syria denying responsibility, and even the existence of an attack; France, the U.S. and the U.K. pointing fingers at the Assad regime; and civilians online torn between the existence or non-existence of an attack, there seems to be no clear picture of what is to happen next.