Syria's darkest day? Opposition blames Assad forces as up to 1,300 killed in ‘poison gas attacks' - Middle East - World - The Independent

Syria's darkest day? Opposition blames Assad forces as up to 1,300 killed in ‘poison gas attacks'

Many of the Damascus victims were very young children, even babies

Defence Correspondent

The victims were laid out in a hospital, on beds and on the tiled floor, their eyes lifeless and staring. Many of them were very young children, even babies. Others were in convulsion, mouths foaming, as medics frantically tried to save them, using hand-pump respirators.

These were the scenes from videos showing, it was claimed by the Syrian opposition, the devastating aftermath of a massacre of more than 1,300 people by Bashar al-Assad's forces using chemical weapons in Ghouta, east of Damascus.

The regime has denied the allegations, accusing “terrorists and their supporters” in the international media of disseminating false propaganda. Such recriminations have become standard in the vicious civil war. But, for the first time since reports of the use of weapons of mass destruction began to circulate, there is now a United Nations inspection team not only inside the country, but in the vicinity of the affected area. It arrived in the Syrian capital on Sunday after months of negotiations with the regime to investigate three occasions where chemical agents have, allegedly, been used in the past.

One of these was at the village of Khan al-Assal near Aleppo where the two sides in the conflict accused each other of carrying out the attack resulting in 26 deaths; the location of the other two sites has not been confirmed.

A number of Western states, including Britain, the US and France, asked the UN team to investigate the latest deaths. Following a closed-door emergency meeting tonight, the UN Security Council said it needed clarification on the attacks, but made no explicit call for a probe by the team in Syria. “There is a strong concern among council members about the allegations and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened and the situation must be followed closely,” said Argentina's UN ambassador, Maria Cristina Perceval, after the meeting. Russia and China had opposed language that would have demanded a UN probe.

Earlier, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that if the claims were verified they would “mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons”. “I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realise its murderous and barbaric nature,” he added later. Russia had backed up the Assad regime's denials, by saying the attack looked like a rebel “provocation” to discredit him.

The French President François Hollande declared it was imperative that the team be allowed “to shed full light” on what had taken place and the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle demanded that the inspectors be given immediate access.

The head of the 20-strong team of inspectors, Ake Sellstrom, a scientist from Sweden, said in Damascus: “It sounds like something that should be looked into. It will depend on whether any UN member state goes to the Secretary General and says we should look at this event. We are in place to do so.”

Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region (Reuters)  

What happened was recent enough for the inspectors to be able to form a view on what had happened, according to specialists on chemical warfare. Such a development may have a major impact on the course of the conflict.

Evidence that the regime has indeed used WMDs, with such a massive number of fatalities, would greatly strengthen the hands of those pressing for large-scale supplies of advanced weapons to the rebels.

Evidence that the footage was fabricated would further dent the already fragile credibility of the disjointed opposition and weaken the position of their Western sponsors.

Ghazwan Bwidany, a doctor treating the casualties, held that the symptoms indicated the use of sarin gas. “It may be sarin, most probably it is sarin” he said. “We don't have the capacity to treat all this number of people. We're putting them in mosques, in schools. We are lacking medical supplies now, especially atropine, which is the antidote for chemical weapons.”

Bayan Baker, a nurse at the Douma Emergency Collection facility, initially put the death toll at 213. “Many of those affected are women and children. They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims.”

Local co-ordination committees of activists in the area said the numbers killed had risen to 1,360, while George Sabra, the deputy chief of the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella group of the opposition, announced a figure of 1,300. He said: “This is the coup de grâce which kills all hopes for a political solution in Syria. This is not the first time they have used chemical weapons, but it constitutes a significant turning point; this time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”

However, there are questions as to why the regime would want to have recourse to WMDs at a time when it was making gains using conventional arms and with the knowledge that UN inspectors were present in the country. “If you look at the way they have sought legitimacy through having the UN team there, in a carefully orchestrated fashion, with the help of the Russians and the Iranians, the use of chemical weapons does not make sense,” said a European diplomat.

Robert Emerson, a security analyst, added: “Assad has not been doing too badly in the publicity stakes with the excesses of Islamists among the rebels like the cannibal commander, et cetera. Deploying WMDs at this stage would be a hell of an own goal.”

A man inspects a site hit by what activists said were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in Raqqa province, eastern Syria on 21 August 2013 A man inspects a site hit by what activists said were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in Raqqa province, eastern Syria on 21 August 2013 (Reuters)  

Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, was also puzzled as to why the regime would carry out such an attack with UN experts there. But he continued: “It is clear that something terrible has happened. The scenes could not have been stage-managed. None of the victims appeared to have external wounds from blast, shrapnel or bullets. The footage seems to offer more convincing evidence of poisoning through asphyxiation - witness the pinkish-bluish hue on the faces of some of the fatalities. Further elements that seem to confirm exposure to toxicants are the unfocused and rolling eyes, severe breathing difficulties and possible signs of urination or defecation on trousers.”

Rebels wouldn’t back intervention, insists US general

The Obama administration is opposed to even limited US military intervention in Syria because it believes the rebels fighting the Assad regime wouldn’t support American interests if they were to seize power right now, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Effectively ruling out US cruise missile attacks and other options that wouldn’t require US troops on the ground, General Martin Dempsey said in a letter to a congressman that the military is clearly capable of taking out President Assad’s air force and shifting the balance of the Arab country’s two-and-a-half year war back towards the opposition.

But he said such an approach would plunge the US deep into another war in the Arab world and offer no strategy for peace in a nation plagued by ethnic rivalries.

“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” General Dempsey said in the 19 August letter to  Eliot Engel. “The side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours... Today, they are not.”

AP

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
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

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week