MS Risk Blog

Syrian Chemical Attack

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At least 70 people have been killed in a suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north-western Syria. Hundreds suffered symptoms consistent with reaction to a nerve agent after what the opposition and Western powers said was a Syrian government air strike on the area on Tuesday morning. Activists and witnesses say warplanes attacked Khan Sheikhoun, about 50km (30 miles) south of the city of Idlib, early on Tuesday, when many people were asleep.

The use of chemical weapons is still being confirmed. 32 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey, where three subsequently died in hospital. “Post mortems were carried out on the three bodies,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said, “the results of the post-mortems confirm chemical weapons were used.”

The bodies were examined by officials from the World Health Organisation in the southern province of Adana together with officials from Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Russia said it was “premature” to accuse President Assad of using chemical weapons, and called for a thorough investigation. It has said the deaths and injuries were caused by a Syrian airstrike on a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances”. Witnesses described seeing victims choking, fainting and foaming at the mouth after the weapons were dropped. Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said it treated patients with dilated pupils, muscle spasms and involuntary defecation “consistent with exposure to neuro-toxic agents such as Sarin.”

The West places the blame squarely on the Assad regime. Russia – one of President Assad’s few allies – has a different story.

Russia, which has carried out air strikes in support of President Assad since 2015, said the Syrian air force had struck Khan Sheikhoun “between 11:30am and 12:30pm local time” on Tuesday, but that the target had been “a large terrorist ammunition depot” on its eastern outskirts. “On the territory of the depot, there were workshops which produced chemical warfare munitions,” it added, without providing any evidence. “Terrorists had been transporting chemical munitions from this largest arsenal to the territory of Iraq.”

A Syrian military statement published by state media categorically denied the use of any chemical or toxic substance” in Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, adding: “It has never used them, anytime, anywhere, and will not do so in the future.”

Reports of the first significant use of chemical weapons – including Sarin nerve agent – by the Assad regime in 2013, prompted the international community’s first purposeful diplomatic intervention in the Syrian War. The Obama administration had marked down the use of chemical arms as “a red line”, which, if crossed, would lead to serious consequences for the Assad regime.In the event, President Obama decided to pull back and avoid military action. The US and Russia came together and brokered a deal under which the Assad regime would give up its chemical arsenal under international inspection.

Russia pledged its continuing support for the Syrian regime on Wednesday, despite the chemical attack. “The Russian Federation and its military are continuing… to support the anti-terrorism operation and liberation of the country, which is being conducted by the Syrian armed forces,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said on Wednesday it was time for Russia to rethink its relationship with the Assad regime. “There is no doubt in our mind that the Syrian regime under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the horrific attack. And we think it’s time for the Russians to think carefully about their continuing support for the regime”