This morning, according to several testimonies, an attack with chemical weapons was carried out against the civilian population in northern Syria. The attack has caused at least 58 dead, including – according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – not less than eleven children. This is a provisional toll expected to rise. A few hours later, as reported by several witnesses, another air strike hit one of the clinics where the victims poisoned by gas had been transported to.
The hit town is Khan Sheikhoun, in the province of Idlib, counts around 75,000 inhabitants, but the entire province, according to UN figures, is also home to 900,000 displaced people coming from different war – torn regions. The province of Idlib is largely controlled by an alliance of Syrian rebel forces linked to al Qaeda and the organization Fatah al Sham, both fighting the regime of Damascus, and is regularly the target of air strikes by the Syrian government and its ally, Russia.
The dynamics of the raid are unclear. The group of the opposition to Assad, based abroad, has pointed the finger against Government’s air force, accusing it of being responsible for the bombing. Meanwhile, activists have posted on the social networks some pictures showing the volunteers of the Civil Defense helping the wounded people lying on the ground by washing them with water pipes. In some images sent by Abusalah, @uxilia’s referent in Idlib, you can see some of the children killed in the attack. According to witnesses, hundreds of civilians have vomiting and foaming at their mouth.
While the attacks with chlorine have almost become routine in northern Syria, this was something different. The attacks with chlorine gas usually kill a few people and only if trapped in an enclosed space, as the gas disperses quickly and does not remain in the area. In this attack instead, as reported by health workers and witnesses, the gas has killed outdoors, as is characteristic of nerve agents and other banned toxic gases. The attack appears to be the largest and most toxic chemical attack in Syria since August 2013, when more than 1,000 people were killed in the suburbs of Damascus by the Sarin, episode which the United Nations have identified as the worst event in the Syrian civil war.
The Defense Ministry of Russian has denied having carried out the bombing in Khan Sheikun. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied responsibility for the incident reporting his acceptance to the Russian-American agreement to eliminate any program of chemical weapons in the Country – which until then had denied having – and adhere to the international treaty banning chemical weapons. Even though those weapons have probably been destroyed, state human rights activists, the member States of the OPCW ( Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon ) have repeatedly questioned whether Assad had reported every weapon he owned in 2013. For example, chlorine had not been mentioned in the statement of 2013, and since then there have been dozens of cases of attacks with chlorine gas.
The European Union and Turkish President Erdogan have condemned the attack. At the request of pro-Ankara local insurgents, Turkey has also sent to the attacked area thirty ambulances from the border province of Hatay, as reported by local authorities cited by Anadolu. Furthermore, some of the injured victims are now being transported to hospitals on Turkish territory. The Foreign Minister of France, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council; meanwhile, last Friday Trump administration’s officials had formalized that news American policy will no longer consider ousting Assad a priority, unlike former President Obama’s objectives, setting the fight against the Islamic State as Washington’s main goal.
Surely, it is unacceptable what happened in Idlib in recent days, just as it is unacceptable what has been happening in Syria for years, but the children killed under conventional bombs seem to affect less than those killed by the gas. It’s true that at a certain breaking point, after crossing the “red line”, military actions are necessary to put an end to the massacres. It is also true that a weak US position has allowed Russia to become the major player in the Middle East. But it is also appropriate to understand what is actually happening in this historical moment and why this attack was carried out.
First of all, we have to ask ourselves why Assad would have decided to carry out a chemical bombardment violating the agreements made in 2013, on the very same day of the opening in Brussels of an international conference on the future of Syria, and after having received confirmation by Trump’s Administration that his ousting was no longer a US priority. Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo from Aleppo has declared: “Based on our experience, I just can’t imagine that the Syrian Government is so naive and ignorant to make such mistakes.”
A possible interpretation of this chemical attack is that Assad was prompted to the use of Sarin gas against the civilian population for geopolitical reasons, and particularly to defend the hegemony of the Shiite coalition comprising Iran, Damascus and Russia. The indignation of the Western population, connected to Sunni alliances, to an intervention violating international treaties would have alienated Turkey in the first place. Excluding Sunni Turkey from the Shiite coalition was certainly a priority for the regime. An alliance between Turkey and Russia, in fact, would have allowed the Turks to reclaim control over the territories of the Syrian Kurds. Furthermore, in ten days a referendum in Turkey is scheduled which would determine a significant constitutional change, increasing the strength of President Erdogan transforming Turkey into a presidential Government, taking away its constitutional secularism and thus bringing Sunni Islam to power.
The use of chemical weapons, if carried out by the Government, would be a clear statement of impunity, especially considering that it took place during an international meeting in Brussels, chaired by Federica Mogherini, on the future of Syria and the possible fundings by the European Union to help the reconstruction of the Country. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has apparently pointed the finger against the regime of Bashar al-Assad speaking to the media in Brussels, on the sidelines of the EU-UN Conference. The UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has announced that the attack on Khan Sheikun would be chemical and carried out from the air, pointing out, as each time, the peace negotiations were sabotaged.