Paris and Washington claim that the April 7 attack on the rebel town of Eastern Ghouta was chemical; Moscow, ally of Bashar al-Assad, demented.
The world | 17.04.2018 at 16:55 • Updated 17.04.2018 at 17:48 | By Madjid Zerrouky
Three days after the reprisal strikes on 14 April against Damascus, the inspectors sent by the International Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Syria were finally able to to access , Tuesday, April 17, in the city of Douma, victim, April 7, of alleged chemical attacks that would have killed forty people.
Syria and the Russia had so far invoked “Security issues” for their prohibit access, according to the OPCW. “Security problems” which did not prevent, among others, journalists from the Swedish TV4 TV to access the site Monday, April 16th and from there question a survivor : “We were refugees in the basement. The missile hit the building at 19 hours. We rushed out as women and children ran inside. They did not know that the building was completely filled with gas (…). Those who stayed inside died. ”
“Suddenly, gas spread around us , testified a neighbor on American television CBS, whose team also visited the scene . We could not breathe it smelled like chlorine. ”
One of the two cylinders of gas that hit the building, on the roof, filmed by the white helmets, the name given to the rescuers in the rebel zones, after the bombing , is still present, nine days later, on the images filmed Monday by Swedish television and of the American CBS.
In the building, a Swedish journalist says to have felt a strong smell and an embarrassment in the throat. On the contrary, media In Damascus, who surveyed the city, they say they have not gathered any evidence that would incriminate the Syrian government.
Why is the French government certain of the chemical nature of the attack?
Only a team from the army The Russian Federation had so far made a brief visit to Douma on 9 April inspect one of the sites struck two days earlier, the building where the majority of the victims were found. Claiming to have taken samples, Moscow concluded on 11 April that no poisonous agents had been used in Duma and once again accused first aid workers of defense civil society (white helmets operating in rebel areas) to have “Staged” the attack. Recurrent accusation.
“The examination of videos and images showing victims and put online has allowed to conclude with a high degree of confidence that the vast majority is recent and not manufacturing , retaliated Paris , April 14th. In the hours that followed the American-French-British strikes, the French government published its “National Assessment on Chemical Attack of April 7, 2018” for legitimate his action. For its part, Washington has also published his own assessment in the evening of April 13th to 14th.
According to the report made public by Paris, “A document made up go of analyzes declassified information techniques obtained by the French services “,” the la France estimate that (…) , no doubt possible, a chemical attack was carried out against civilians in Duma on April 7, 2018, and that there is no other plausible scenario than that of a force action Arm Syrian forces as part of a global offensive in the enclave of eastern Ghouta “.
What is the chronology of the attacks?
French and American documents evoke “Several lethal chemical attacks” , without specify the number. The scenario of the raids, established in the hours which followed the bombardments by three Syrian NGOs – the Syrian Network for Human Rights ; the Violations Documentation Center in Syria and the white helmets – reported two separate strikes on April 7th. A first, near a bakery, at 4 pm, then a second between 7 pm and 7:30 pm, which struck a three-story building in the center -city.
The videos broadcast in the night from 7 to 8 April by local media show many bodies on the site of the second attack; the one broadcast by Al-Jazeera television on April 9 when the Russian military police arrive on the places and, finally, the reportage of the Swedish television show that this is the same building near Al-Shuhada Square.
Dozens of people would have died in the building. If the white helmets advanced at first the figure of forty-three deaths, the counting of the bodies on the videos allows him to to confirm the presence of thirty-four corpses on the site, according to a count of Bellingcat investigative collective , whose investigations based on geolocation techniques and open source analysis, and which examined videos filmed in the building and posted at night. “In total, several dozen people, at least forty according to several sources, would have died from exposure to a chemical substance” , estimates the French evaluation.
Why use chemical weapons?
Even though Damascus was in the process of complete its victory in the Ghouta after eight weeks of offensive, why would the Syrian army have resorted to chemical weapons? A military strategy and a feeling of impunity, answer his accusers.
Saturday, April 7, Duma is already subject for forty-eight hours to a flood of fire after more than two weeks of relative calm. But Damascus wants in finish with the ultimate rebel enclave of the region, while the bulk of the forces of the Salafist group Jaych Al- Islam (about five thousand fighters) still refuse to evacuate the city after the negotiations started in mid-March under the aegis of the Russian forces.
The employment chemical weapons fits into this framework? For Paris, no doubt: “The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime makes sense in this context , from a double point of view, military and strategic ” , says the French document:
“Tactically, the use of such ammunition dislodge enemy fighters housed in homes to engage urban combat in the most advantageous conditions for the regime. (…)
Strategically, one of its objectives is to punish civilian populations in areas held by combatants opposed to the regime, and provoke on them an effect of terror and panic inciting to surrender. (…) It is demonstrate that all resistance is useless and of to prepare the reduction of the last pockets. ”
Did the April 8 attacks precipitate the Duma surrender, completing this “Strategic objective” a use of chemical munitions? On April 9, two days after the raids, evacuation of civilians remained in the city resumed, in panic and chaos. Local authorities and the Jaych Al-Islam group have lost control of the situation, local correspondents of the opposition Syrian agency say Smart News . Salafist fighters burn down their facilities and equipment, while the warehouses of the NGOs they control are looted by the population , in search of food.
The government news agency SANA announces, the same day, that the armed opponents finally agree to to leave the city. On April 12, after eight weeks of operations, the police Russian military deploys in Duma, sealing the final surrender.
The American document states that the United States has a “Big bundle of evidence that imply the responsibility of the Al-Assad regime” . Washington goes further than the French assessment by accusing Syrian army helicopters of being the source of the strikes.
“Many government helicopters were observed moving over Duma on 7 April. Witnesses specifically mention a Mi-8 aircraft that allegedly took off from the nearby Doumayr airport before turn above Duma during the attack. ”
The United States corroborates – or relies on – real-time data from the Sentry Syria network. An aerial warning system composed of observers who search the sky and radio exchanges and determine the caps taken by planes taking off from government or Russian air bases. In 2017, Washington released the radar data of the flight plan for the aircraft involved in Khan Sheikhoun’s sarin bombardment, confirming the observations of Sentry Syria a posteriori.
The 7 April records show intense aerial activity in the Duma skies with overflights of helicopters and fighter jets departing from Doumayr Air Force bases, 40 kilometers to the north-east of the besieged enclave. , and Al-Sin Military Airport, 75 kilometers east.
In the half-hour before the raid that targeted the vicinity of Al-Shuhada Square, the warning network reported the take-off of at least four “Barrel helicopters” from the Doumayr base. Two of them will be observed above Douma a few moments before the strike.
The term “Barrel helicopters” refers to devices that drop unguided drums, often locally manufactured gas cylinders and carried by helicopters of Russian Mi-8 origin.
“Many eyewitnesses confirm that barrels were dropped by these helicopters, a tactic used to target civilians throughout the war. The photographs of the barrels dropped in Douma correspond to those used previously by the regime “, continues the US assessment.
What type of substance was used?
“If, in the absence at this stage of the chemical samples analyzed by its laboratories, France therefore considers that a chemical attack was carried out against civilians in Douma on April 7, 2018”, the evaluation of Paris does not specify the nature of the chemical agent used, while considering that several could have be used in describing the symptoms caused by the attack: “Suffocation, asphyxia or breathing difficulties. Hypersalivation and hypersecretions including oral and nasal. Cyanosis. Skin burns and corneal burns (…). No death by mechanical effect is visible. All of these symptoms are characteristic of chemical weapons attack, including suffocating agents and organophosphorus agents or hydrogen cyanide. ”
If sarin gas, the use of which in Khan Cheikhoun has been confirmed by the OPCW, is part of family organophosphorus, there is no indication at this stage its presence in Douma or that of another product that would have been used in parallel with chlorine, whose repeated use has been attested in Syria by UN investigators. The two cylinders of gas identified on the site of the second attack correspond to those who have been identified in numerous allegations of chlorine attacks in the last four years in Syria.
“The traces can be erased and every day that passes away from us a precise understanding of what happened” , explained April 12 at World Olivier Lepick, chemical weapons specialist and associate researcher at the Foundation for Scientific Research.
If only a chlorine attack was confirmed, it would be the deadliest ever found for a gas regarded as not very lethal.