Douma chemical attack

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Douma chemical attack
Part of the Rif Dimashq offensive (February–April 2018), Siege of Eastern Ghouta, Syrian Civil War
TypeChemical warfare,[1]:9.12 airstrike[2]:3.1
Location
33°34′16″N 36°24′17″E / 33.57111°N 36.40472°E / 33.57111; 36.40472
Date7 April 2018
19:30 [3] (UTC+03:00)
Executed bySyrian Arab Air Force (accused)[4][5]
OutcomeUS, UK, France launch retaliatory missile strikes
Casualties41[6][7][1]:9.5 — 49[3] reported killed
100[8] — 650[3] injured
Douma is located in Syria
Douma
Douma
Location of Douma within Syria

On 7 April 2018, a chemical warfare attack was carried out in the Syrian city of Douma.[1]:9.12 It is reported, according to medics and witnesses, to have resulted in the deaths of between 40 and 50 people,[1]:9.5[3][6]:971[7][8] and injuries to possibly many more than a hundred.[8][3] The attack was attributed to the Syrian Army by rebel forces in Douma, and by the United States, British, and French governments.[9][10] The Syrian and Russian governments asserted that a widely-circulated video allegedly showing the aftermath of the attack was staged.[11][12]

On 14 April 2018, the United States, France and the United Kingdom carried out a series of military strikes against multiple government sites in Syria.

On 6 July 2018, an interim report was issued by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Various chlorinated organic chemicals (dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid, chlorophenol, dichlorophenol, bornyl chloride, chloral hydrate etc.) were found in samples, along with residues of explosive, but the designated laboratory 03 stated that no CWC-scheduled chemicals or nerve agent related chemicals were detected. In September 2018 the UN Commission of Enquiry on Syria reported: "Throughout 7 April, numerous aerial attacks were carried out in Douma, striking various residential areas. A vast body of evidence collected by the Commission suggests that, at approximately 7.30 p.m., a gas cylinder containing a chlorine payload delivered by helicopter struck a multi-storey residential apartment building located approximately 100 metres south-west of Shohada square. The Commission received information on the death of at least 49 individuals, and the wounding of up to 650 others."[3]

While it was initially unclear which chemicals had been used, in 2019 the OPCW FFM (Fact-Finding Mission) report concluded: "Regarding the alleged use of toxic chemicals as a weapon on 7 April 2018 in Douma, the Syrian Arab Republic, the evaluation and analysis of all the information gathered by the FFM—witnesses’ testimonies, environmental and biomedical samples analysis results, toxicological and ballistic analyses from experts, additional digital information from witnesses—provide reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place. This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine. The toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine."[1]:9.12 The OPCW said it found no evidence to support the government's claim that a local facility was being used by rebel fighters to produce chemical weapons.[13]

Background[edit]

According to Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and United Nations investigations, both the Syrian Arab Republic's forces and Islamic State militants have used chemical weapons during the conflict.[14][15][16] Human Rights Watch has documented 85 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2013, and its sources indicate the Syrian government is responsible for the majority.[17] People reported incidents of chemical weapons use specifically in Douma in January 2018; Russia vetoed a potential United Nations mission to investigate.[18][19] The Arms Control Association reported two smaller chlorine gas attacks in Douma on 7 March and 11 March.[20]

Douma had been under rebel control since 18 October 2012,[21] and, with the rest of the Eastern Ghouta region, under siege since April 2013.[22] The Rif Dimashq offensive (February–April 2018), code-named Operation Damascus Steel, a military offensive launched by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies on 18 February 2018 to capture the rebel-held territory.[23][24] The Jaysh al-Islam rebel coalition controlled Douma.[25][26][27][26][27] By mid-March, rebel territory in Eastern Ghouta had reduced to three pockets, one in the south around Hamouria held by Faylaq al-Rahman; a second in the west around Harasta held by Ahrar al-Sham; as well as Douma in the north held by Jaysh al-Islam.[28] In the second half of March, the other two pockets were secured via evacuation deals between the rebels, Syria, and Russia.[29][30][31] On 31 March, the last of the evacuations was conducted and the Syrian army declared victory in Eastern Ghouta, while the rebels that were still holding out in Douma were given an ultimatum to surrender by the end of the day.[32]

Reports[edit]

A chemical attack in Douma occurred on 7 April 2018. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, a humanitarian organization that supervises medical services in the region, attributed seventy deaths to the attack. On-site medics reported smelling a chlorine-like odour, but that symptoms and death toll pointed to something more noxious such as sarin nerve agent caused the deaths.[33] A video from the scene showed dead men, women, and children with foam at their mouths.[34] The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) reported over 500 injured people at Douma "were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent."[35] SAMS also said a chlorine bomb struck a Douma hospital, killing six people, and that another attack with "mixed agents" affected a building nearby.[36] According to the Syrian opposition groups, witnesses also reported a strong smell of chlorine and said effects appeared stronger than in previous similar attacks.[37] Syrian opposition activists also posted videos of yellow compressed gas cylinders that they said were used during the attack.[37] Based on the symptoms and the speed with which the victims were affected, medical workers and experts suggested either a combination of chlorine with another gas or a nerve agent was used.[37] Several medical,[38] monitoring, and activist groups[39]—including the White Helmets—reported that two Syrian Air Force Mi-8 helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the city of Douma.[40][41][42][43][44][45] The bombs caused severe convulsions in some residents and suffocated others.[34]

Aftermath[edit]

The day after the chemical attack, all rebels controlling Douma agreed to a deal with the government to surrender the area.[46]

In the early hours of 9 April 2018, an airstrike was conducted against Tiyas Military Airbase.[47][48] Two Israeli F-15I jets reportedly attacked the airfield from Lebanese airspace, firing eight missiles, of which five were intercepted, according to claims by Russia.[49] According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, at least 14 people were killed and more were wounded.[50] Al-Masdar News reported seven Iranian soldiers among the dead.[51]

On 10 April, member states proposed competing UN Security Council resolutions to handle the response to the chemical attack. The U.S., France, and UK vetoed a Russian-proposed UN resolution. Russia had also vetoed the U.S.'s proposed resolution to create "a new investigative mechanism to look into chemical weapons attacks in Syria and determine who is responsible."[52][53]

On 14 April, France, the United Kingdom and the United States launched airstrikes against four Syrian government targets in response to the attack.[54] The airstrikes were claimed to successfully destroy the chemical weapons capabilities of Syria. Nevertheless, according to Pentagon, the Syrian Arab Republic still retains the ability to launch chemical weapons attacks.[55]

Media commentary[edit]

CBS journalist Seth Doane also traveled to Douma on 16 April, where a neighbor reported a choking gas that smelled like chlorine. A man took him to the alleged site of the impact and showed where the remains of a missile rested.[56] Eliot Higgins, a citizen journalist and blogger investigating the Syrian civil war,[57][58] concluded based on geographical, video, and open source evidence that the chlorine gas was dropped by one of two Mi-8 helicopters taking off from Dumayr Airbase 30 minutes earlier.[59][60] Military officials in the US, UK, and France all insisted the bomb had been dropped from one of two Syrian government helicopters flying from the airbase at Dumayr.[61]

The Guardian reported testimony from witnesses that medical personnel in Douma faced "extreme intimidation" from Syrian officials for them to remain silent about their patients treatment. They and their families were allegedly been threatened by the Syrian government. Medics who tried to leave the area were said to have been heavily searched in case they were transporting samples.[62] The Guardian described Russian state media as "pushing" two lines; that they have spoken to witnesses denying the occurrence of any attacks, and that they have found chlorine-filled canisters in Douma "used for rebel attacks later blamed on the regime."[63]

After six months of examining the evidence, interviewing witnesses, and consulting with experts such as Higgins and Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James Harkin concluded in The Intercept that Syrian Air Force helicopters dropped two chlorine canister bombs on Douma on 7 April 2018. Harkin noted that many chlorine attacks launched by Syrian forces in the past had resulted in no casualties, hypothesizing that—in contrast to the much more lethal sarin gas—Syrian forces likely employed chlorine at Douma to induce panic among the population rather than to kill many people. One of the canisters never released its payload and caused no deaths, but the other canister struck the weak roof of an apartment complex at an unexpected angle, releasing a very high concentration of chlorine that killed the people beneath it in a matter of minutes. According to Harkin, the frightened residents seen flocking to a nearby hospital and being doused with water in viral footage were not survivors of the chemical attack, but victims of conventional weapons and smoke inhalation.[64]

A report released by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI), a Berlin-based think tank, determined that chlorine attacks accounted for 91.5% of all confirmed chemical weapons attacks attributable to the Syrian government throughout the war, including the 7 April 2018 attack on Douma.[65][66] The report, supported by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and the Robert Bosch Foundation, held Syrian government responsible for 98% of all recorded chemical weapons attacks over the course of the Syrian civil war and believes its use of chemical weapons "is best understood as part of its overall war strategy of collective punishment of populations in opposition-held areas".[67][65]

Commenting on the OPCW FFM report of 2019, Bellingcat remarked that the detail provided, 'continues to make it clear that the Douma attack was yet another chlorine attack delivered by helicopter, using the same type of modified gas cylinders as seen in previous chlorine attacks.'[68]

OPCW investigation[edit]

On 10 April, the Syrian and Russian governments invited the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to send a team to investigate the attacks.[69][70] The investigators arrived in Douma on 14 April;[71] however, their access to the site was blocked by Russia and Syria who cited security concerns.[72][73][74][75]

On 17 April, the OPCW was promised access to the site, but had not entered Douma[76] and was unable to carry out the inspection because a large crowd gathered at one site, while their reconnaissance teams came under fire during a reconnaissance to visit the other site of the purported chemical weapons attack. According to the OPCW director, "On arrival at site one, a large crowd gathered and the advice provided by the UNDSS was that the reconnaissance team should withdraw," and "at site two, the team came under small arms fire and an explosive was detonated. The reconnaissance team returned to Damascus."[77] However, the OPCW statement did not lay blame on any party for the incident.[78] The United States believes the Syrian government is stalling the OPCW to give itself time to remove evidence.[79]

On 19 April, OPCW still was unable to access the sites. According to a US State Department spokeswoman, there was "credible information" that "Russian officials are working with the Syrian regime to deny and to delay these inspectors from gaining access to Douma," and "to sanitize the locations of the suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use."[55]

OPCW inspectors visited the site and collected samples on 21 April and 25 April.[72][80] The organization said that it would submit to its member states a report "based on analysis of the sample results, as well other information and materials collected by the team."[81]

At the warehouse and the facility suspected by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic of producing chemical weapons in Douma, information was gathered to assess whether these facilities were associated with the production of chemical weapons or toxic chemicals that could be used as weapons. From the information gathered during the two on-site visits to these locations, there was no indication of either facility being involved in the production of chemical warfare agents or toxic chemicals for use as weapons. During the visit to Location 2 (cylinder on the roof), Syrian Arab Republic representatives did not provide the access requested by the FFM team to some apartments within the building, which were closed at the time. The Syrian Arab Republic representatives stated that they did not have the authority to force entry into the locked apartments.[82]

On 6 July 2018 the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) published their interim report.[83] The report stated that:

The results show that no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties. Along with explosive residues, various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from two sites, for which there is full chain of custody.[83]

In 2019 the OPCW FFM (Fact-Finding Mission) report concluded:

Regarding the alleged use of toxic chemicals as a weapon on 7 April 2018 in Douma, the Syrian Arab Republic, the evaluation and analysis of all the information gathered by the FFM—witnesses’ testimonies, environmental and biomedical samples analysis results, toxicological and ballistic analyses from experts, additional digital information from witnesses—provide reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place. This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine. The toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.[1]:9.12

The OPCW said it found no evidence to support the government's claim that a local facility was being used by rebel fighters to produce chemical weapons.[13] It was not the mandate of the fact-finding team to assign blame for the attack.[13]

A document was leaked in 2019 containing an engineering assessment by a current or former OPCW Inspection Team leader and, according to a statement from the director, liaison officer for OPCW in Damascus.[84][85] According to the document, the evidence encountered at the site indicated the liquefied-chlorine cylinders were not dropped from helicopters, but manually placed in their respective locations. This dissenting assessment was not included in the final report.[86] Subsequently the head of the OPCW stated that this document had been produced by an OPCW member, however it "pointed at possible attribution, which is outside of the mandate of the [Fact-Finding Mission] with regard to the formulation of its findings." Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW, said the staff member who produced the document was a liaison officer at the OPCW Command Post Office in Damascus and was tasked with temporarily assisting the FFM with information collection at some sites in Douma. Arias said 'all views, analysis, information and opinions are considered. This is what the FFM did with the information included in the publicly disclosed document; all available information was examined, weighed and deliberated. Diverse views were expressed, discussed and considered against the overall facts and evidence collected and analysed. With regard to the ballistics data collected by the FFM, they were analysed by three external experts commissioned by the FFM, and working independently from one another. In the end, while using different methods and instruments, they all reached the same conclusions that can be found in the FFM final report.'[85] According to EA Worldview, Arias indicated that the memo was "considered but was not fit for the conclusion" of the FFM’s report. Scott Lucas further reported that Arias had confirmed that the Syrian government was "refusing any follow-up by the Investigations and Identification Team, denying visas and access to information held by Damascus".[87]

Reactions[edit]

Government[edit]

 France – On 12 April, French President Emmanuel Macron said he has proof that the Syrian government attacked the town of Douma with chemical weapons and at least used chlorine.[5][88] The BBC quotes U.S. officials as saying urine and blood samples taken from victims have tested positively for traces of chlorine.[89]

 Iran – The Foreign Ministry of Iran spokesman said: "While the Syrian army has the upper hand in the war against armed terrorists, it is not logical for them to use chemical weapons. Such claims and accusations [about chemical weapons use] by the Americans and some Western countries signal a new plot against the government and nation of Syria and is an excuse for military action against them."[90]

On 10 April, U.S. President Donald Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement following joint telephone calls that they had "agreed that the international community needed to respond to uphold the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons".[91]

 Qatar – The Qatar Foreign Ministry condemned the use of chemical weapons, and called for an investigation into the incident and for punishment of those involved.[92]

 Russia – On 13 March 2018 the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, said the Russian military had "reliable intelligence" that suggested the rebels holding Eastern Ghouta, along with the White Helmets activists, were preparing to stage and film a chemical weapons attack against civilians, which the U.S. government would blame on the Syrian forces and use as a pretext to bomb the government quarter in Damascus.[93][94][95] In the event that the lives of Russian servicemen should be threatened by U.S. strikes, Gerasimov said Russia would respond militarily — "against both the missiles and the platforms from which they’re launched".[96][97]

The Russian Foreign Ministry on 8 April denied chemical weapons had been used.[98] A few days later, the Russian military said members of the White Helmets organization filmed a staged attack.[99][100] Then, on 13 April, the Russian Ministry of Defence said that it was Britain that staged the attack in order to provoke U.S. airstrikes.[101]

On 26 April, Russian officials held a press conference in The Hague where they presented several apparent witnesses from the Douma incident, flown in from Syria, who said that reported victims had not suffered symptoms of a chemical attack.[102] The Russian envoy to the OPCW said that videos of the attack were little more than "a sloppily staged video showing the pretence for a strike is completely groundless".[103]

 Saudi Arabia – The Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the use of chemical weapons, and stress the need for a peaceful solution based on the principles of the Geneva Declaration and UN Security Council resolutions.[104]

 Syria – The Syrian state-owned Syrian Arab News Agency reported a Foreign Ministry source called allegations of Syria's use of chemical weapons an unconvincing stereotype.[105]

 Turkey – A spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the "Syrian regime must give account for the attacks in various regions of the country at different times," and called upon the international community to address war crimes and crimes against humanity.[106][107]

 United Kingdom – Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that "these latest reports must urgently be investigated and the international community must respond" and that "investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [are] looking into reports of chemical weapons use in Syria have our full support. Russia must not yet again try to obstruct these investigations". He also condemned the use of chemical weapons in general, adding that "those responsible for the use of chemical weapons have lost all moral integrity and must be held to account."[108]

 United States – President Donald Trump condemned the attack on Twitter, heavily criticizing Russia over it.[109][110] Trump canceled his trip to the 8th Summit of the Americas, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place.[111]

On 11 April, via Twitter, President Trump told Russia to "get ready" for "nice and new and 'smart' missiles." Vasily Nebenzia, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States would "bear responsibility" for any "illegal military adventure" they conducted.[112] The following day, Trump appeared to soften his resolve, tweeting he "[n]ever said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!"[113]

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis stated the U.S. was still waiting on the OPCW investigation, but that there were "a lot of media and social media indicators that either chlorine or sarin was used" in Douma.[114][115] On 14 April, France, the United Kingdom and the United States launched airstrikes against four Syrian government targets in response to the attack.

Intergovernment[edit]

 European Union – In a statement, the EU said "the evidence points towards yet another chemical attack by the regime" and "it is a matter of grave concern that chemical weapons continue to be used, especially on civilians. The European Union condemns in the strongest terms the use of chemical weapons and calls for an immediate response by the international community". It also called for the United Nations Security Council to identify the perpetrators and for Russia and Iran to influence Assad against launching such attacks.[116]

 United Nations – On 10 April 2018, the United Nations Security Council failed to adopt three competing resolutions on an inquiry into the chemical attack, with Russia and the United States clashing over the issue and exchanging military threats.[117][118]

The World Health Organization released a statement, with a reference to outside medical sources, that[119] 43 people died while suffering "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals."[55]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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