After years of civil war, the Syrian government has wrested control of nearly all of eastern Ghouta, a region in southwestern Syria containing Damascus. The city of Douma, however, remains under rebel control.
Recently, diplomatic negotiations have been replaced with government airstrikes of Douma. The Washington Post reports that on April 7, in the most recent attacks, the Syrian Air Force dropped bombs containing toxic substances in two separate attacks on Douma. After the second round of strikes, over 500 victims with symptoms of chemical exposure were ushered into nearby medical facilities.
According to BBC, the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) and Syria Civil Defense issued a joint statement detailing symptoms including “respiratory distress, central cyanosis (blue skin or lips), excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odour.” Reports of fatal cases included such symptoms, in addition to coughing blood, dilated pupils, and convulsions. BBC indicates that witnesses also reported a strong smell of chlorine.
Syria Civil Defence and SAMS suspect the presence of organophosphates, a group of chemicals used in insecticides and accountable for most worldwide poisonings.
The Violations Documentation Center attributed 25 deaths to the first strike and 20 to the second. Out of these, 42 were discovered by rescuers in the victims’ homes. Overall fatality counts differ across reports, but the figures are still rising. A day after the attack, local rebel forces surrendered to the government and fled north, accompanied by 100,000 civilians.
International responses were largely condemnations of the Syrian government. The U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, and Pope Francis voiced their disapproval of the attacks and stressed the need for an investigation and response. However, the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran have all denied a chemical attack. Defending its ally, Iran warned that military attacks by Western countries would only embolden terrorists and hinder peace, according to Al-Monitor.
Nevertheless, in the following days, Reuters reported that Washington and allies were considering military action in response to the April 7 events. The European Union counseled European airlines to avoid Syrian airspace in case of retaliatory airstrikes. Syrian forces have been recently put on “high alert.” On April 11, President Donald Trump tweeted that missiles “will be coming”, and on April 13, the U.S., France, and U.K. launched airstrikes on three Syrian chemical weapon facilities, New York Times reports.
In addition to denying the use of chemical weapons, Syria has prevented objective investigations of the attacks. Humanitarian organizations have been unable to enter the area because of the entrance restriction enforced on the region since March. Alongside many nations, the deputy director of the World Health Organization demanded “immediate, unhindered access to the area to provide care to those affected, to assess the health impacts, and to deliver a comprehensive public health response,” reports the Guardian.
The Syrian government confirmed its possession of chemical weapons for the first time in 2012. Since then, there have been over two dozen reports of government chemical weapons use.