How Assad chose his killing fields: The greatest threat to the Syrian leader lies on his doorstep – in the district of Ghouta which was targeted by his chemical weapons

Kim Sengupta meets the local businessman leading the fight against the dictator – and hears his account of that tragic day

Aleppo Province

The rebels had almost reached the border when the hidden explosive device was set off; minutes later came bursts of intense firing. Four were killed immediately; around a dozen injured, some of them unlikely to survive because of the severity of their injuries. Three of the men were captured and, their comrades fear, may not be seen alive again.

Click image above to enlarge graphic

The target of the well-planned ambush by Bashar al-Assad’s forces was a group of 26 opposition representatives from Ghouta, the place where a few days earlier a chemical attack had killed more than a thousand people, a massacre which had led to one of the most serious international crisis in recent times with threats of US air strikes. What happened on 21 August in the Rif Dimashq governorate will be, the revolutionaries want to believe, the catalyst for foreign intervention with immense impact on the course of the vicious civil war. Ghouta now craves a key role in the crucial next stages of the conflict; less than 10 miles from the centre of Damascus, it would be the ideal strategic point for the rebels to strike at the fraying heart of the regime. Little wonder it became the target of Assad’s most vicious crime to date.

After two and half years of increasingly savage strife, at a cost of more than 100,000 lives, many rebels hope the killings in Ghouta are the turning point; at last the US and its allies will take action. Even if the bombing does not take place, they expect a rapid escalation of support. If the West does not step in even now, they are certain the flow of arms from the Gulf will increase.

The seeming willingness of President Assad to hand over his chemical arsenal to international control is, they hold, a stalling tactic. However, if the stocks really are removed from the battlefield, with it will be removed the primeval fear such weapons have inspired among his opponents.

The Independent has spoken to people from Ghouta – some still living there, some in northern Syria in areas outside regime control and others in neighbouring Turkey – in an attempt to piece together the circumstances surrounding the chemical attack and also what the opposition on the ground want to see unfold in its aftermath.

The group of rebels killed last week were approaching the Jordanian border from Syria. They were a mixture of senior fighters and civilians on their way to meet foreign supporters of the Syrian opposition and members of its exiled leadership in Amman. There are, they claim, more than 40,000 fighters in Ghouta waiting for supplies and a co-ordinated plan to mount an assault on the capital.

The regime is fully aware of the grave danger on its doorstep and infuriated by the obdurate resistance it faces. The assault which had been going on for the last 10 months is continuing in Ghouta despite movements of its forces being restricted in other areas due to apprehension of American action.

“We are used to a hundred rockets and artillery [rounds] a day and that is still going on”, Abu Abdullah who has been trapped in the eastern part of the area for the last year was keen to stress. “We hear the Americans are going to be bombing, but the only bombing is being done by Bashar.”

An influential civic leader from Ghouta, using the name Mustapha Omar, maintained that the time of having to bear the constant pounding is coming to an end. He had arrived in Turkey from Jordan with a list of weapons needed to spring forward into the regime’s lair.

Mr Omar, a wealthy businessman, had spent a considerable amount of his own money equipping some of the khatibas (battalions) of rebel fighters in the area. He also helped facilitate the visit by UN inspectors to the sites of suspected chemical attacks in Ghouta by liaising with different groups of fighters. Mr Omar was now on a mission, in Jordan and Turkey, to obtain weapons from international backers. British officials have been among those he had been in contact with; they have not, he insisted, provided him with any arms. That is likely to come from sympathisers in the United Arab Emirates.

“We are really after the UK’s help in training, but we may have to turn to the Americans, there is a lot going on in Jordan”, he said. Barack Obama announced last week that a first batch of 50 trained in the country by former US forces’ personnel were being sent into Syria.

“We are not saying that we in Ghouta are the best fighters, the toughest ones. But we are the ones the nearest to the capital, there is nowhere else that is such a good location to go to Assad and his people,” Mr Omar maintained. “Of course, Assad and his people know that. And that is the reason they had surrounded us for months, continually attacked us, used chemical weapons.” The Russian proposal on the regime’s chemical arsenal proves that “they have been using this poison. It’s a manoeuvre to avoid strikes, but it’s also a confession.”

People inspect bodies of children and adults allegedly killed in a toxic gas attack in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, last month (Getty) People inspect bodies of children and adults allegedly killed in a toxic gas attack in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, last month (Getty)

 

Whether the regime used its chemical arsenal is, of course, at the centre of the raging accusations and recriminations  and the view of Mr Omar and his side is, inevitably, highly partisan.

The US, Britain and France, among others, have charged the regime with deliberately attacking with sarin gas; it is the side with the military capability to do so. President Assad’s regime and its allies, chiefly Russia and Iran, have disputed that any weapon of mass destruction had been present .However, if it was used, then the responsibility for it, they claim, lies with the rebels.

Soon after the news of the deaths broke, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman stated that the nerve agent had been delivered by a home-made rocket fired from a rebel-held village. No evidence of this has been produced so far. Another account, widely circulated on the internet, is that Jabhat al-Nusra, a hardline Islamist group among the rebels, and foreign jihadists with them, were supplied with chemical components by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi chief of intelligence, and stored in a tunnel where it was fatally mishandled.

Testimony from  residents of Ghouta – not all of them supporters of the rebels – together with maps they provided, some of them hand-drawn, calls these scenarios into question. They repeatedly recounted separate landings of “chemicals” at Kafr Batna, Zayina, Ein Tarma, Zamalka, Ain Tarma and Moadamiyeh Al Sham, at varying times, pointing out that a single home-made rocket could not have carried out multiple strikes.

The Jabhat al-Nusra “own goal” explanation is also hotly disputed. The group, which has declared itself affiliated to al-Qa’ida, has grown in size and power in northern Syria, but it has no presence of any significance in Ghouta. The largest Islamist group in the area are the Liwa al-Islam, which the activists say are not as hardline as al-Nusra or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) – which is a branch of al-Qa’ida.

“Liwa al-Islam are not like al-Nusra, it is a different organisation, in a different area,” said Mr Omar. “We hardly have any foreign fighters in Ghouta. There is a Libyan I know, two or three from Saudi Arabia and a Jordanian. No Syrian rebel would use chemical weapons on their own communities; foreigners? But would the Saudis or anyone give such a big task to these few, no.”

Abu Abdullah was adamant: “Both east and west Ghouta are surrounded by the government. Do you think we would not know about some rebels bringing in chemical weapons? Do you think we would allow such things when we have our families, children there? Don’t we have enough problems with regime’s chemicals?”

The tunnels do exist and have been used to move about to avoid checkpoints, but any chemical accidents in them would not have reached the areas affected, the residents insisted.

Riadh Al-Nasri, a 23 year old medical student who was in eastern Ghouta on the night of the killings recalled: “There was a lot of shelling and rocketing, heavier than at many nights before, Moadmiyeh was particularly bad. We kept on hearing the word ‘chemical’ and people were suffocating. I went with friends to the field hospitals to help. We have seen lots of bodies, injured, dead, in this revolution. But these were different, there was no blood. When we were there they brought in more people, they were foaming at the mouth, through their noses, like children who have taken in soap.”

Sae’d, another medic, who was at Zamalka, said he was shocked: “The people brought in were vomiting, the pupils of their eyes were so small, they could not breathe, not just one or two, but dozens of them. I saw one whole row of people having muscle spasms, they had gone down to the cellars because they thought it was an ordinary bombing, neurotoxic agents fell through the air to them.”

Mr al-Nasri continued: “We had been to the field hospitals other times when they said they had chemical attacks, there have been people suffocating, not being able to speak, but nothing like this. Most of the people could not be saved, but we knew how important it was, it was decided that we must document everything very properly.”

He thought around 600 had died that night and morning, although “many more died because we did not have things like atrophine or biperiden”. Different opposition groups had put forward the number of fatalities between 350 to 1,729, the higher end making it the biggest loss of lives from a chemical attack since Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Kurds at Halabjah in 1988. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, had repeatedly used a figure of 1,429, a precision which military and intelligence figures believe would have been impossible to pin down.

“Why does it matter, 500 or 5,000? You did not see what we saw, the mothers with dead babies, the mothers crying, the babies with their eyes just open,” Mr al-Nasri said angrily. “What about all the people killed by the regime using just bombs and their planes? Do we need to achieve a certain total of dead children before America, Britain does something?”

Mr Omar held that even without game-changing strikes, the regime will collapse soon. “We are seeing more and more soldiers coming over to us. Others are just running away, ministers are still defecting ” he stated. “Our friends need to back us so that this happens quickly. We want al-Ghouta to lead this not because we want revenge. It is to prevent revenge; we are not extremists. I know government officials who are technocrats who will be needed to rebuild the country; we don’t want to chop their heads off like some of the Islamists.”

Mr Omar and his colleagues feel that even with a rebel victory there has to be a negotiations. “We don’t want Assad to be killed the way Gaddafi was killed, we are not like that. We want him to face a court,” he said. “If that’s not possible he should leave the country with 100 of those closest to him. Look, some of us are still materially alright despite all that’s happened. What I say to the opposition who will form the next government is that when we negotiate to end this, we must not think of us, we must think of the mothers with poisoned babies in Ghouta.”

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution