Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The United States blamed the Syrian government and its patrons, Russia and Iran, on Tuesday for one of the deadliest chemical weapons attacks in years in Syria, one that killed dozens of people in Idlib Province, including children, and sickened scores more.

A senior State Department official said the attack appeared to be a war crime and called on Russia and Iran to restrain the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from carrying out further chemical strikes.

Britain, France and Turkey joined Washington in condemning the attack, which they also attributed to Mr. Assad’s government. The United Nations Security Council was scheduled to be briefed on the attack on Wednesday.

One of the worst atrocities attributed to the Syrian government since President Trump took office, it poses a potential policy dilemma for the administration, which would like to shift the focus in Syria entirely to fighting the Islamic State.

Just days ago, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said that Mr. Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people,” and Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

On Tuesday, the White House called the attack a “reprehensible” act against innocent people “that cannot be ignored by the civilized world.”

But Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, said the slaughter was unlikely to change the United States’ posture toward Mr. Assad because of the “political realities” in Syria.

“There is not a fundamental option of regime change as there has been in the past,” Mr. Spicer told reporters. “Somebody would be rather silly not acknowledging the political realities that exist in Syria. What we need to do is to fundamentally do what we can to empower the people of Syria to find a different way.”

He added that “these heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the last administration’s weakness and irresolution.”

“President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘a red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Mr. Spicer said.

Russia has insisted that it had no military role in the strike. But the State Department official, who briefed reporters on Tuesday, said that Russian officials were trying to evade their responsibility because Russia and Iran were guarantors of the Assad government’s commitment to adhere to a cease-fire in the peace talks the Kremlin helped organized in Astana, Kazakhstan, this year.

The official said that it appeared Russia was unable or unwilling to hold the Syrian government to the agreed cease-fire.

He reiterated that the attack on civilians appeared to be a war crime. The official, who could not be identified under the State Department’s protocol for briefing reporters, also asserted that even before the alleged chemical strike, the Trump administration had shelved the idea of cooperating militarily with the Assad government against the Islamic State.

Witnesses to the attack said it began just after sunrise. Numerous photographs and graphic videos posted online by activists and residents showed children and older adults gasping and struggling to breathe, or lying motionless in the mud as rescue workers ripped off victims’ clothes and hosed them down. The bodies of least 10 children lay lined up on the ground or under a quilt.

A few hours later, according to several witnesses, another airstrike hit one of the clinics treating victims, who had been farmed out to smaller hospitals and maternity wards because the area’s largest hospital had been severely damaged by an airstrike two days earlier.

Rescue workers from the White Helmets civil defense organization said that many children were among at least 50 dead and 250 wounded. Radi Saad, who writes incident reports for the group, said that volunteers had reached the site not knowing a chemical was present, and that five of them had suffered from exposure to the substance.

While chlorine gas attacks have become almost routine in northern Syria, this one was different, medical workers and witnesses said. Chlorine attacks usually kill just a few people, often those trapped in an enclosed space, and the gas dissipates quickly.

This time, people collapsed outdoors, and in much larger numbers. The symptoms were also different: They included the pinpoint pupils of victims that characterize nerve agents and other banned toxins. One doctor posted a video of a patient’s eye, showing the pupil reduced to a dot. Several people were sickened simply by coming into contact with the victims.

The opposition minister of health, Mohamad Firas al-Jundi, said in a video that he had been in a field hospital at 7:30 a.m. when more than 100 people arrived wounded or sickened. Many others, he said, were scattered to other clinics.

“The patients are in the corridors and on the floors of the operation rooms, the E.R.s and in the patient rooms,” he said. “I saw more than 10 deaths due to this attack.”

Symptoms, he said, included suffocation; fluid in the lungs with foam coming from the mouth; unconsciousness; spasms; and paralysis.

“It’s a shocking act,” he said. “The world knows and is aware of what’s happening in Syria, and we are ready to submit evidence to criminal laboratories to prove the use of these gases.”

Mariam Abu Khalil’s exam on the Quran was scheduled for sunrise, since the examiners reckoned that was the time when bombs were least likely to fall. That proved wrong.

Mariam, 14, a resident of Khan Sheikhoun, where the attack took place, had not yet reached the exam hall when she saw an aircraft drop a bomb on a one-story building a few dozen yards away. In a telephone interview Tuesday night, she described an explosion like a yellow mushroom cloud that stung her eyes. “It was like a winter fog,” she said.

Sheltering in her home nearby, she saw several residents arrive by car to help the wounded. “When they got out, they inhaled the gas and died,” Mariam said.

The attack appeared to be the largest and deadliest chemical attack in Syria since August 2013, when more than 1,000 people were killed in the Damascus suburbs by the banned toxin sarin. Under threat of United States retaliation, Mr. Assad agreed to a Russian-American deal to eliminate his country’s chemical weapons program, which until that time it had denied having, and to join an international treaty banning chemical weapons.

But the operation took far longer than expected and raised questions about whether all the materials were accounted for. The head of the international monitoring body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, complained in an internal report about misleading statements from Damascus and expressed concern about possible undeclared chemical weapons activities.

Since then, the organization has found that the Syrian government used chlorine gas as a weapon three times in 2014 and 2015, violating the treaty. Rebel fighters, doctors and antigovernment activists say there have been numerous other chlorine attacks, including at least two in the past week, in one case killing a doctor as he worked.

The government denies that it has used chemical weapons, arguing that insurgents and Islamic State fighters use toxins to frame the government or that the attacks are staged.

Leith Abou Fadel, the editor of a pro-government news site, citing military sources, wrote that the Syrian military had bombed a weapons factory belonging to insurgents, causing the release of the chemicals.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has also accused the Islamic State of using banned mustard gas in Iraq and Syria. But the area around Khan Sheikhoun is not held by the Islamic State but by other insurgents — Qaeda-linked militants and a variety of other rebel groups.

A chemical weapons attack, if carried out by the government, would be a brazen statement of impunity, coming during a major international meeting in Brussels where officials are debating whether the European Union and others will contribute billions of dollars for reconstructing Syria if it is presided over by a government run by Mr. Assad.

“Today’s chemical attack was a direct insult to the #EU,” Fadi Halisso, a Syrian former priest who runs Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a humanitarian organization that aids Syrian and Palestinian refugees, said on Twitter.

“Assad is telling them, ‘You will pay, and I will continue killing,’” he added from Brussels, where he was attending the meeting. “You can do nothing.”

There had already been debate about whether the European Union and other Western countries would be willing or able to insist on a significant political transition, or at least power sharing, as a condition for supplying reconstruction funds.

Khan Sheikhoun is on a supply route about 20 miles from the front lines of the battle in neighboring Hama Province between government forces and a mix of insurgents, including United States-backed groups and Qaeda-linked fighters.

The body of a child after a reported gas attack on Tuesday in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province. Credit Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

Suspected chemical attack kills dozens in Syria as victims foam at the mouth, activists say

BEIRUT — Scores of Syrians, many of them women and young children, were killed Tuesday in one of the deadliest chemical attacks of the country’s six-year war, according to doctors, rescue workers and witnesses.

Airstrikes on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun began just after daybreak, delivering an unidentified chemical agent that killed at least 58 people and filled clinics across the area with patients foaming at the mouth or struggling to breathe.

President Trump blamed the attack, which he said was carried out by the Syrian government, on former president Barack Obama, calling it a “consequence” of Obama’s “weakness and irresolution.” The reference was to Obama’s decision not to follow through with a threat to use military force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after a 2012 chemical attack.

In a statement released by the White House — just days after the administration said action against Assad was not a U.S. priority — Trump called the Tuesday attack “reprehensible” and said that it “cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring network, put the death toll at 58, including at least 11 children. Doctors at the scene cited higher figures, saying entire families were killed in their sleep.

Three doctors said in interviews that the symptoms they saw were far more serious than they would expect from chlorine, which Syrian government forces have used as a chemical weapon in the past. The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed “serious concern” and said it was investigating.

Images from the area showed the bodies of at least a dozen men, women and children splayed across the ground between two houses. It was not possible to independently verify the reports, but video footage showed lifeless bodies wrapped in blankets and packed on the back of a truck. The youngest were wearing diapers.

In another video, several children were seen slumped on hospital beds, apparently unresponsive to the medics and chaos around them.

Syrian government warplanes in recent months have launched heavy attacks across northern Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of civilians — many having fled other battle zones — are squeezed together among much of what remains of the armed opposition to Assad.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry denied involvement in Tuesday’s attack, saying the government was committed to its obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria joined the convention in 2013 after launching sarin attacks on several Damascus neighborhoods — strikes that killed hundreds of civilians and pushed the United States to the brink of military intervention.

“Assad calculates, reasonably, that military dynamics play in his favor. By using chemical weapons and other weapons, he is demonstrating the powerlessness of international actors,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Congressional refusal to vote in favor of U.S. military action after Assad’s use of sarin, a nerve agent, in 2012 provided Obama with cover to withdraw his ultimatum, although he continued to call for Assad to leave power. The United States and Russia, Assad’s main backer, then negotiated a plan for the internationally supervised removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump criticized Obama for what he said was a waste of attention and resources on Syria’s internal struggle at the expense of the fight against the Islamic State. Late last week, Haley said the U.S. priority was no longer to “focus on getting Assad out,” while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Syrian people should decide Assad’s future.

A senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday that Assad has committed “war crimes” and blamed his Russian and Iranian backers for failing to control him. Those two countries are “guarantors” of a cease-fire they negotiated, the official said, but “clearly, they are not able to deliver.”

“That’s a very significant problem. Obviously that’ll be something that we’ll be looking at and discussing and reviewing,” said the official, who noted that Tillerson will visit Moscow this month. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the State Department.

The attack came as European diplomats gathered in Brussels for a flagship conference aimed at pledging billions of dollars for Syria’s reconstruction, six years into a civil conflict that has shattered much of the country and prompted refugees to pour out across the Middle East and Europe.

Photographs of lifeless bodies in Khan Sheikhoun were passed from phone to phone in the Brussels conference hall, attendees said, a stark reminder of the limitations of European power in a war now heavily driven by Iranian and Russian influence.

In Washington, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) echoed Trump’s criticism of Obama, saying that the former president had “figuratively jumped in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s lap” to agree on the weapons withdrawal.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that “Assad believes he can commit war crimes with impunity,” and he challenged Trump to take action. The question now confronting Washington, he said, “is whether we will take any action to disabuse him of this murderous notion.”

Doctors and activists in rebel-held areas have accused the government of sharply increasing chemical attacks across Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces since the end of last year.

In the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Samer al-Youssef, a resident, described watching people running toward the homes of relatives, then wrenching open the doors to find them dead inside.

“We did our best, but we couldn’t save people. Around 30 percent of those who were brought to us were dead on arrival,” said Usama Darwish, a doctor.

Although a nationwide cease-fire has technically been in place across Syria since late December, civilians and rebel groups now say it exists in name only.

“People are terrified. They don’t know where to go,” said Ahmad Rahhal, a 22-year-old activist. “They can’t cross into Turkey because the borders are closed, but if they stay in their houses, they will be attacked by bombs. What can they do?”

As a displacement crisis burgeons on its southern border, Turkey has limited new Syrian arrivals to those seeking medical treatment, often in the wake of attacks. Reports Tuesday suggested that ambulances were lined up at the border crossing, ready to bring the next wave of casualties to Turkish hospitals.

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