Gassing the people: the latest from Syria
Derrick Krusche writes about the latest developments in the bloody Syrian civil war, with pictures and stories emerging of the use of 'Sarin', a nerve gas, by Assad forces. The clock is ticking for global action and leadership; when will Obama's "red line" be crossed?
Written by Derrick Krusche
Their bodies do not show outwardly visible wounds. There is no blood. There are no bandages. In-between the screams of survivors, dozens of dead men, women and children lay scattered motionless in makeshift hospitals.
This is the result of an alleged nerve gas attack by President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime on the rebel-held Ghouta area east of the capital Damascus.
YouTube videos uploaded on Wednesday illustrate graphically why the use of chemical weapons is banned internationally under the Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria is not a signatory).
Unlike conventional weapons that focus on specific targets, chemical weapons are indiscriminate. What is concerning, is that these chemical weapons attacks appear to have come from rockets fired directly into the area.
International medical experts have examined the footage and many believe the symptoms of those who survived indicate the use of a chemical weapon called ‘Sarin’. Developed by Nazi scientists in the 1930s, Sarin is inhaled or absorbed through the skin, paralysing the muscles around the lungs, causing suffocation.
Stripped of their clothes to avoid any remaining toxicity, the victims’ skin, bluish from asphyxiation, and their shaking bodies make the footage distressing to watch. This is compounded by the fact that hundreds of bodies are babies and toddlers.
Medical staff who risk exposure because of inadequate protective gear are quickly running out of atropine and cortisone needed to treat the poisoning.
Reports of the use of Sarin by Assad’s forces have circulated all year. U.S. President Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons crosses a “red line” and would be a “game changer”.
While most of the international community has expressed their disgust at the alleged massacre, France has been the most belligerent in its rhetoric.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared “If it is proven, France’s position is that there must be a reaction”. He ruled out deploying troops on the ground, but did speak of a “reaction with force”. Continuing, Fabius said “the last time gas of this type was used on a massive scale was during the Iraq war, by Saddam Hussein”.
It is important that the international community not act rashly. The first priority should be to verify the purported footage. The U.N. has sent chemical weapons investigators who are waiting nearby in Damascus. However, the government continues to shell the outskirts of Damascus, making early access unlikely. As each hour passes, the chance of reaching a definite conclusion that Sarin was used diminishes.
In the history of the Syrian Civil War, the divided opposition in Syria has not always abided by international law. In May, authorities in Turkey seized two kilograms of Sarin held by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra in a town near the Syrian border.
However, when children with distressing physical symptoms are interviewed and recall the attack, it is difficult to think that the allegations are fabricated. One young boy describes to a TV journalist his grandfather collapsing, vomiting and then dying.
The U.N. Security Council is to hold an emergency meeting. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said if the use of chemical weapons was established it would constitute a crime against humanity. However, Russia and China have insisted on tempering U.N. press statements against the Assad regime. They have not dismissed the possibility that the rebels themselves have staged these attacks in an effort to garner international support.
Russia is a key ally of Syria and its support has been crucial to the regime’s survival. However, in a recent development, Russia urged Assad’s government to reach an agreement with the U.N. to allow the entry of chemical weapons investigators. As Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated, “The challenge now is to establish the absolute fact of whether the regime used those chemical weapons”.
If the attack is confirmed, it is difficult to think an international intervention will not occur. In 1995, it took the massacre of Bosnians by Serbs for NATO to send its planes. More recently in 2011, air strikes were launched in response to the Gaddafi government’s treatment of its own citizens.
The international community now looks to the U.K., France and the U.S. to create a solution. As the death toll in Syria now surpasses 100,000 it is difficult to be hopeful. Time is running out to reach a political solution to this horrible and bloody conflict. The international community must ensure Syrian civilians are not subjected to another chemical attack.