BEIRUT – Syria’s main opposition group has accused the government of “massacring” more than 1,300 people in chemical weapons attacks on Wednesday, killing civilians as they slept and leaving makeshift hospitals packed with victims convulsing and gasping for breath.
Photographs and videos posted online showed the bodies of men, women and children without visible wounds after the alleged chemical strikes in eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus. The western Ghouta neighborhood of Moadamyet al-Sham also allegedly was hit.
Activists said Thursday that President Bashar Assad’s forces were pressing on with a military offensive in the rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs.
George Sabra, deputy head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said the death toll had reached 1,300. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number at 100.
Denouncing the lack of international action on Syria, Sabra reiterated calls for a no-fly zone, saying that not only is the Assad regime killing the Syrian people, “the weakness of the U.N. is killing us. The U.S. hesitation is killing us.”
Even the more conservative casualty estimates of Wednesday’s attack would make it, if true, the most extensive use of chemical weapons since 1988, when thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed in the Kurdish village of Halabja in an attack launched by President Saddam Hussein.
While the exact cause of the deaths remained unclear, there was widespread agreement, as one European expert noted, that “something terrible has happened.”
If confirmed, the use of toxic agents would also present a renewed challenge to U.S. President Barack Obama, who said last year that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a “red line” requiring a U.S. response.
The White House on Wednesday refused to specify what, if any, action Assad would face if it was proven that his forces were behind the attack.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “I’m not talking about red lines. I’m not having a debate or conversation about red lines. . . . I’m not setting red lines.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest focused instead on a team of United Nations inspectors who are in Syria to probe previous claims of chemical attacks, saying they should be allowed to examine the new alleged incident.
The top U.S. military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, pushed back on calls for airstrikes, which he said could embroil America in an open-ended war.
The Syrian government strongly denied responsibility, calling the allegations “absolutely baseless.” But a White House statement put the blame squarely on Assad, referring to “reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons.”
The deaths touched off a vigorous debate among independent experts about whether available information pointed to the use of a well-known chemical weapon such as the nerve agent sarin or to some other toxic agent. U.S. intelligence agencies offered no early verdict.
The U.N. investigators now in Syria are probing previous incidents in which the United States and its allies have said small quantities of chemical weapons were used. But the U.N. Security Council was unable to agree Wednesday on whether those experts should immediately investigate the new incident.
Western governments demanded immediate access for the inspectors to investigate the new allegations.
Russia echoed the call for an inquiry but suggested that the opposition itself had staged the attack in a “pre-planned provocation.”
Mohammed Abdullah, an activist in the suburb of Saqba, said most of the dead were buried the same day in mass graves in different areas in eastern Ghouta. He said the burials took place quickly for fear the bodies might decompose as a result of the heat and lack of electricity.
He said unidentified victims were photographed and their graves tagged with a number in case their loved ones come to collect their bodies in the future.
Eyewitnesses said the attack began when Russian-made Grad rockets began falling at around 2 a.m. in neighborhoods east of the capital where rebels have had some recent success in repelling government forces.
Sama Masoud, an opposition activist who lives in one of the targeted areas, described scenes of chaos on the streets as panicked residents did not know whether to stay in their homes or flee. “The fiance of my sister has died,” she said. “My friend, her husband and her husband’s uncle — all dead while asleep.”
More than 130 videos were posted online showing the victims. In some children lie on tiled floors, vomiting, convulsing and struggling to breathe as they are treated with hand-held respirators or as medics desperately administer chest compressions.
In others, men sprawled on the floor of a makeshift hospital are hosed down with water in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to wash off the remnants of the poisonous gases.Majed Abu Ali, a medic in nearby Douma, said his team had treated 600 patients with symptoms including reddened eyes with constricted pupils, vomiting, skin rashes, loose bowels and extreme problems breathing. He said 65 had died and that “overwhelmed” medical staffers had little to protect themselves from toxins.
In one video posted on YouTube, children are seen receiving first aid in a field hospital, notably oxygen to help them breathe. Doctors appear to be trying to resuscitate unconscious children.
Another video showed what activists said was a case of hysteria following a chemical strike in the eastern suburbs. A young girl held her head in her hands and frantically repeated “I’m alive” as a man in a white coat tried to comfort her.
Some experts questioned the video evidence. Paula Vanninen, director of Verifin, the Finnish Institute for Verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, said: “At the moment, I am not totally convinced because the people that are helping them are without any protective clothing and without any respirators. In a real case, they would also be contaminated and would also be having symptoms.”
But others said the symptoms exhibited by victims were far more convincing than in any of the previous alleged chemical incidents.
Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James C. Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the photographic evidence “clearly indicates exposure to a toxic chemical,” citing a combination of tell-tale symptoms such as respiratory problems and twitching, and the near absence of wounds that would be associated with conventional explosives.
But she acknowledged that it was impossible to tell if the apparent poisoning was caused by sarin or one of the other known toxins in Syria’s arsenal.
“Regardless of whether this was a classic warfare agent like sarin, the Chemical Weapons Convention outlaws use of any toxic chemical for military purposes,” Smithson said.
Jean-Paul Zanders, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris, said the photos appeared to confirm “exposure to toxin” but not necessarily nerve gas. He added, “It is clear that something terrible has happened.”
Obama has steadily escalated U.S. aid to the opposition, although rebel fighters said that light arms and ammunition shipments administration officials said were recently cleared for delivery have not yet arrived.
But the administration has remained divided over the wisdom of the more direct military support that the rebels, and some U.S. lawmakers, have demanded. In an Aug. 19 letter to Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel released Wednesday, Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that more robust military assistance, including U.S. air assaults attacks against Assad’s air force, could not ensure that U.S.-favored moderates in the fractured opposition would prevail.
In a surprisingly direct statement of his own policy recommendation, Dempsey wrote that “the best framework for an effective U.S. strategy . . . going forward” was expanded humanitarian aid and support for opposition moderates.