Bashar al Assad’s regime has once again shown to both its allies and detractors that it operates with impunity.
On the night of April 7, people in the besieged Syrian town of Douma were waiting for the sounds of falling rockets to die down after two days of intense aerial bombardment.
Then poison gas seeped in. It came down the stairs, the crevices, broken doors and windows, and bullet holes, causing a serious health emergency across the town. Those affected by the gas gasped for air, foaming at their mouths.
Douma, a town on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, was controlled by the opposition who have been fighting the regime of Bashar al Assad for years.
“As per our information, 43 people are dead. Some of them didn't find time to get out of their homes. They died where they were hiding,” says Mohamad Katoub, a representative of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).
Ever since the civil resistance began in 2011, Assad’s regime has hit civilian centres and opposition strongholds more than 100 times with different chemical weapons, sometimes involving lethal sarin and mustard gas, which disfigures skin and leaves lungs damaged permanently.
Though the regime denies using chemical weapons, no one buys Assad’s explanation — especially not the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), says Paul Walker, a chemical weapons expert.
“All of the forensic evidence and eyewitness reports in Syria have found that the chemical agents have been dropped from helicopters and aircraft, including improvised barrel bombs," Walker says while speaking with TRT World.
“And the rebel forces do not have any helicopters or aircraft.”
The attack evoked worldwide condemnation. US President Donald Trump warned the regime of retaliation. Experts argue that it’s very likely that the US will take military action against the regime’s armed facilities in the near future.
What’s in it for Assad?
Within hours of the attack, the opposition forces agreed to abandon Douma, which was the last remaining outpost in their former stronghold of eastern Ghouta.
A day later, the fighters and their families were heading to Idlib in northern Syria where most of the opposition and its backers are now concentrated.
For some time before the recent chemical attack, the opposition forces in Douma, including the Jaish al Islam rebels, who also fight against Al Qaeda-linked militants, had been in talks with Russia for a ceasefire.
Russia, which entered the seven-year-old conflict in September 2015 to back Assad’s then crumbling regime, was negotiating a ceasefire deal that would have allowed the opposition to take on a policing role in the battered town.
The deal was unacceptable to the Syrian regime and its other international backer – Iran, says Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst.
“An urban battle to uproot Jaish al Islam would have cost Assad hundreds of casualties and taken weeks if not months,” he tells TRT World.
“With the deal [between Russia and rebels] faltering, Assad resorted to poison gas to terrorise his opponents, and within hours Jaish al Islam was being deported.”
The attack took place around the anniversary of a similar bombardment on April 4, 2017, when more than 80 people were killed in a lethal sarin gas attack on residents of Khan Shaykhun.
It prompted Donald Trump to order strikes against the Syrian regime for the first time. But critics say the dozens of Tomahawk missiles that hit a regime airbase were largely symbolic.
It didn’t deter Assad.
“There have been 12 chemical attacks since Khan Shaykhun. What was the global reaction? Only one US strike. When the culprit sees there is no accountability for chemical weapons use, he continues to do it,” says SAMS’s Mohamad Katoub, who himself comes from Douma.
Katoub has been in Turkey since May 2014 from where he facilitates doctors working in opposition-held areas.
Who is the real pawn - Assad or the others?
Iran is the world’s biggest laboratory of surviving chemical attack victims. More than 50,000 people, many of them soldiers, still suffer from the paralysing effects of nerve agents sarin and tabun used by Saddam Hussain’s forces during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
It’s customary for foreign journalists visiting Tehran to be taken to the Peace Museum and see the pictures of the devastation caused by the use of chemical weapons.
“In my track-two discussions with very senior former Iranian officials … there were voluntary statements about the sense of regret of the extent to which their client [Assad] was willing to go in a pretty comprehensive programme of state terror,” Frederic C Hof, a former US State Department’s special advisor on Syria during the Obama Administration, told an audience on April 11.
Important: video from 9 April, 7:02pm showing presence of chemical gas canister in Douma. Same location as video of casualties. Also same location that Russia visited reporting ‘no sign of chemical weapons’. pic.twitter.com/Sbz64cPi4w— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 10, 2018
Both Iran, with its military backing and armed militias, and Russia are heavily invested in propping up the Assad regime, says Orton, the Middle East analyst.
The actual individual uses of chemical weapons by Assad tend to be driven by tactical considerations, he says. But “it is possible to classify Assad’s use of chemical weapons as political since part of the message is his invulnerability to international pressure.”
Assad’s use of chemical weapons has raised prospects of direct confrontation between the US and Russia with both sides threatening to retaliate.
The attack also came just days after leaders from Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss a solution for the Syrian conflict.
Turkey is also involved in Syria, that suffered numerous Daesh attacks on its soil. Turkey is also concerned about the presence of the PKK's Syrian wing, YPG. The PKK is considered to be a terrorist group by the US, the EU and Turkey.
As for the question of who is really a pawn in the complex Syrian crisis, Orton says it works both ways. “Iran and Russia are using Assad as a pawn, he has very little operational autonomy left — and he is using them as he continues to retain his throne.”
As the world looked on
In 2012, former US president Barrack Obama warned Assad that using chemical weapons was a "red line" for his administration. That came just days after some senior Syrian leaders had threatened to use chemical weapons.
The warning didn't change much. The regime used chemical weapons against the opposition and civilians in eastern Ghouta in August 2013. More than 1,000 people were reportedly killed.
After intense pressure, the Syrian regime acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) a month later and agreed to handover its chemical weapons stockpiles to international investigators.
The Syrian regime declared that it managed a stockpile of 1,308 metric tons of chemical agents and precursor chemicals, which was later removed from the country and neutralised, says Walker, the chemical weapons expert.
“It’s now apparent that it either did not declare all of its chemical agents, or produced more sarin agent since its initial declaration to OPCW.”
Syria’s chemical weapons programme was no secret. The US and other western governments have for years monitored the regime’s attempt to acquire the chemicals and technology to make deadly weapons.
The regime started producing rockets and artillery rounds with the mustard-type blistering agent as far back as 1993.
But no one acted.
“What were they supposed to do?” asks Gwyn Winfield, the editorial director at CBRNe World, a periodical focused on threats posed by chemical explosives.
“If any unprovoked nation attacked Syria’s chemical or biological weapons programme then they risked killing thousands of people in the ensuing release [of poison gas] and being culpable for those deaths.”
Experts say the chemical weapons are no longer considered effective on the battlefield.
“This is the primary reason that both the US and Soviet Union agreed bilaterally in the mid-1980s to unilaterally and reciprocally destroy their enormous chemical arsenals,” says Walker.
But the toxic chemicals can still be used as a weapon of terror, especially against defenceless civilian populations, he says.
The OPCW’s inspectors are heading to Douma to determine if chemical weapons were used and the type of agents. Their mandate doesn’t including deciding who was behind the attack.
Experts say a proper investigation is needed to establish what type of chemical weapon was used. The pictures and videos of the victims cannot be relied upon to make a conclusive judgement.
That’s also one reason there’s still confusion whether Assad’s regime used chlorine – which it has used multiple times – or less frequently used nerve agents such as sarin.
SAMS’ Katoub says his colleagues at the hospital in Douma told him that victims’ symptoms indicated effects of organophosphorus compounds, the nerve agents.
“The victims had heavy oral foaming and pinpoint pupils – and many of them died in the position they were sitting or hiding. Whatever was used affected their nervous system, and they couldn’t even move.”