An international aid group operating in Syria reports that at least 355 people were killed and more than 3000 critically injured after purported nerve gas attacks on civilian neighborhoods in the Damascus area this week.
Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" over less than three hours on Wednesday morning, when the attack in the eastern Ghouta area took place. Of those, 355 died, said the Paris-based group.The attack came nearly a year to the day after the White House warned the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction would constitute a 'red line' that would change its outlook on directly intervening in the 36-month civil war.
The report provides some of the clearest evidence yet by an independent organization that chemical weapons have been used in the conflict between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and rebels fighting to oust him.
Although Doctors Without Borders said in its statement that it could not definitively confirm that chemical weapons were used, and if so, by whom, its report raises the pressure on the international community to respond.
The patients in the three hospitals the organization supports near the reported attack were given atropine that it had supplied. Atropine is a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms, including exposure to chemical weapons. Doctors Without Borders said it is now trying to replenish the facilities' stocks of atropine.
"The reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first-aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent," the organization said.
However, it remains unclear who actually launched the attack with Syria's military accusing Al Qaeda affiliated rebels and western governments convinced the Al-Assad regime carried out the attack. Both sides have been accused of using chemical weapons and nerve agent on each other earlier this year. The rebels, which include defectors from the Syrian Army and the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nursa Front reportedly seized a Saudi-owned chemical plant outside of Aleppo towards the end of 2012. In June, Iraqi officials raided an alleged Al Qaeda workshop that was manufacturing sarin and mustard gas outside of Baghdad. Although Syria officially denies that it has a WMD program, it's also a possibility that the rebels could have captured chemical weapons or precursors from a Syrian installation.
If this attack was indeed launched by the Assad regime, it not only comes nearly a year to the day from President Obama's 'red line' warning, but also just days before the arrival of UN weapons inspectors as Syrian ground forces makes considerable gains against the rebels. In short, while I wouldn't put it past Al-Assad to gas his own citizens, to do so soon just miles outside of his capital before a visit from UN weapons inspectors would benefit his regime very little.
Of course, if the Assad regime isn't to blame then this raises the even more disturbing possibility that Al Qaeda-linked Islamists now have access to chemical weapons and could be using Syrian neighborhoods as a proving ground as a test-run for future attacks.