Douma chemical attack draws international outrage

US President Trump tells Russia and Iran there would be a ‘big price to pay’ for backing ‘animal Assad’.

Regime airstrikes kill 59 more civilians in Eastern Ghouta
Douma, in Eastern Ghouta, has been the target of a fierce government offensive [File: Anadolu]

A chemical attack in a Syrian rebel-held town has sparked widespread international outrage and revulsion.

At least 85 people, including many women and children, were killed in Douma on Saturday, according to a statement by rescue workers and medical staff.

Condemnation poured in on Sunday as US President Donald Trump warned there would be a “big price to pay”, while Turkey said: “it is not possible to justify nor accept such attacks for any reason and in any way, shape or form.”

“Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” Trump wrote on Twitter, lashing out at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay,” he said. 

Trump’s threat came exactly a year and a day after the US army fired cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in retaliation for a deadly sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Tom Bossert, White House homeland security adviser, told ABC television that he “wouldn’t take anything off the table” when asked whether the US could again respond with a missile attack.

The Assad government and Russia both denied any use of chemical weapons as “fabrications”. The Russian foreign ministry called the latest reports a “provocation”, warning against “military intervention under far-fetched and fabricated pretexts”.

Commenting on the incidents, the European Union called for an international response to the attack. 

“The evidence points towards yet another chemical attack by the regime,” the bloc said in a statement.

“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.”

The EU also called on the UN Security Council to re-establish its checks to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks and on Russia and Iran – the Syrian government’s closest allies – to use their influence with al-Assad to prevent further attacks.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France strongly condemned attacks and bombings by Syrian government forces in the last 24 hours in Douma, adding they were a “gross violation of international humanitarian law.

He called for the United Nations Security Council to meet quickly to examine the situation saying that France would work with allies to verify reports that chemical weapons were used.

Referring to President Emmanuel Macron’s warning that France could strike unilaterally if there was a deadly chemical attack, Le Drian said that Paris would assume all its responsibilities in the fight against the proliferation of chemical weapons.

Syria’s White Helmets, who are the first responders in rebel-held areas of Syria, said the attack late on Saturday involved “poisonous chlorine gas”. 

In recent years, the Syrian government has been accused of using chemical weapons as a tool against the armed opposition.

‘Strong suspicion’

Turkey denounced the chemical attack in Douma: “We strongly condemn the attack, and we have the strong suspicion it was carried out by the regime, whose record on the use of chemical weapons is known by the international community,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.

Ankara said that the incident showed that past UN Security Council resolutions on the use of chemical weapons in Syria were “once again” being ignored.

The foreign ministry also called for an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and said it expected the international community to condemn the attack.

In recent months, Ankara has been working closely with Russia and Iran in a bid to bring an end to the seven-year conflict.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed his Iranian and Russian counterparts in Ankara for a summit on Syria.

Medical points targeted

In a joint statement, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the White Helmets said that the chemical attack in Douma was preceded by “intense bombardment” on Friday.

The bombing resulted in significant damage to the city’s medical capacity, as “several medical points and ambulance teams” were targeted.

“The SAMS and the Syrian Civil Defense Corps have documented more than 200 uses of chemical weapons in Syria since 2012 so far in Syria,” Siraj Mahmood, a member of the White Helmets, said.

“Previous Security Council resolutions on the issue have not succeeded in stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”

Britain’s foreign office called on for an international probe into the reports of a chemical attack in Douma.

“These are very concerning reports of a chemical weapons attack with significant number of casualties, which if correct, are further proof of Assad’s brutality against innocent civilians and his backers’ callous disregard for international norms,” said a UK Foreign Office spokesperson: 

Qatar’s foreign ministry expressed in a statement its “deep shock at the horror of this horrific crime that shook the conscience of humanity”, and called for “an urgent international investigation”, according to a report by Qatar News Agency. 

Saudi Arabia voiced “deep concern” and condemned the chemical attack.

“We stress the need to put an end to these tragedies and to pursue a peaceful solution based on the principles of Geneva 1 and Security Council resolution 2254,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement, referring to the 2015 resolution that unanimously called for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.

Pope Francis also condemned chemical attacks against civilians in a special appeal during Sunday’s service in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican.

“There is no good or bad war and nothing, nothing can justify the use of such instruments of extermination against unarmed people and populations,” he said.

The pope urged political and military leaders to “choose the other way: the way of negotiations, the only one that can bring a peace that is not the peace of death and destruction”.

Since February 18, the Syrian government’s Ghouta offensive has killed more than 1,600 civilians.

Source: Al Jazeera