Evidence of a sophisticated chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime suggests the dictator in Damascus thinks he’s now got Trump’s carte blanche to kill as he likes.
ISTANBUL, Turkey—Days ago, in Ankara, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that the U.S. had no quarrel with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a man Tillerson’s predecessor compared to Adolf Hitler after he slaughtered more than 1,000 people with poison gas in 2013.
The “longer-term status of President Assad,” Tillerson said, “will be decided by the Syrian people,” a euphemism used by Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to indicate that he isn’t going anywhere.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer used almost identical language the next day, saying, “Well, I think with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.”
But the gas, it appears, is raining down once again on civilians.
In a video made Tuesday, Dr. Shajul Islam showed the camera a young man lying on a gurney with a catatonic expression on his face. His pupils were shrunk to the size of pinheads. “This is not chlorine,” he said. “We do not smell chlorine on this patient.” The industrial chemical has often been used as crude weapon on the Syrian battlefield.
Perhaps this time it was organic phosphate, another easily acquired chemical.
But other Syrians—and outside observers—say that it’s more likely the Assad regime dropped sarin gas on civilians—a much more sophisticated odorless and colorless nerve agent that Damascus was supposed to have gotten rid of as part of a U.S.-Russian-brokered deal in 2013.
“If it’s what it looks like, it’s clearly a war crime,” said a senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.
“It has the fingerprints of a regime attack,” added a U.S. intelligence official. “If the Assad regime was indeed responsible for perpetrating the attack, the reported casualties figures would make it the biggest incident like this since the Syrian regime’s August 2013 sarin attack against the Damascus suburbs.”
As ever in the six-year civil war, the death toll depends on whom you consult. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts it at 58. The White Helmets, on-the-ground first responders, at first said the figure was closer to 50. Other estimates are upward of 100 dead, with probably about 300 more injured.
The “poisonous gas,” as one Syrian activist put it, was dropped by helicopters in a series of airstrikes in the city of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, one of the last enclaves of rebel control in the area, mainly administered by al Qaeda and other Islamist groups.
Dr. Firas Jundi, health minister for the opposition interim government, told The Daily Beast he had the names of 60 people killed in the gas attack. He said the death toll was bound to rise as there are 300 wounded, many in critical care hospitals and clinics throughout the province.
The number of victims was an indication that this is not chlorine gas, he added in a Whatsapp conversation from Idlib, where the interim government is located. “Usually chlorine doesn’t kill such big number.”
He said the signs of trauma suggested a nerve agent like sarin was used in the attack, but testing was needed to say for sure. He said local authorities have recovered parts of the rocket that carried the gas canisters and are ready to turn them over to international investigators.
“What I noticed about the victims was they had difficulty breathing, many had lost consciousness and the pupils of their eyes had narrowed,” he said.
“If there are pinpoint pupils and convulsions, it’s likely nerve gas. The number of deaths is too high for chlorine for an outdoor attack,” said Andy Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs under the Obama administration.