‘They Were Just Struggling to Breathe’
An eyewitness to a chemical attack tells FP that Assad’s forces are dropping barrel bombs containing chlorine gas on hospitals and civilian centers.
BEIRUT — Dr. Mohammed Tennari first saw the six members of the Talib family when they were carried into his cramped field hospital in northern Syria on the night of March 16. They had been taking refuge in the basement of their home in the town of Sarmin when a barrel bomb filled with chemical gases struck their house. The gas, being heavier than air, quickly filtered down into the basement, poisoning the family.
Tennari and his team struggled to revive the three small children, their mother, father, and grandmother, as life slipped away from them, he explained to me in a Skype call earlier this month from his field hospital in Sarmin. Everything smelled of bleach; the doctor himself felt nauseous from the fumes, and one of the nurses fainted. All six family members would die.
“There were no wounds, no bleeding, they were just struggling to breathe,” he said of the attack. “Their lungs were filled with liquid as well — it was suffocation, to the point where the heart stopped beating.”
His description of the Talib family moved several U.N. Security Council members to tears this week, according to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power. The world diplomatic body is not usually known for outbursts of raw emotion, but it’s not hard to understand why Tennari’s story of what he witnessed in Sarmin would elicit such a strong response.
The below video shows the three Talib children limp and non-responsive to medical treatment; two are treated on the body of their dying grandmother, as the field hospital lacked beds for all the wounded.
Tennari, 35, traveled to New York City this month to tell his story to the UN Security Council. A native of Sarmin, he was arrested by the regime early in the Syrian revolt for treating wounded members of the opposition. He was held for two months, and upon being released, moved to the opposition-held areas in Idlib. He eventually ended up running the field hospital in his hometown, which consists of 10 doctors and 30 nurses who work around the clock to treat the victims of the vicious war in northern Syria.
A radiologist by training, Tennari not only must treat the injured with limited space and supplies, but also says he must contend with direct attacks on the field hospital. He said it has been shelled three times by the Syrian regime over the past month, and 18 times over the last year and a half. A report published last month by Physicians for Human Rights found that the Syrian regime was using attacks on medical workers as “a weapon of war,” and that at least 610 medical workers had been killed since the beginning of the conflict.
“They’re aiming for the hospital,” Tennari told FP. “Every time this would happen, the government channels say they’ve reclaimed the hospital from the terrorists.”
This escalation comes as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have suffered extensive losses in the area. Idlib city, the provincial capital, was captured by a coalition of Islamist rebels on March 28, becoming only the second provincial capital to fall from Assad’s hands during the four-year conflict.
In an interview published April 17 in the Swedish newspaper Expressen, Assad said the “main factor” for the regime losses was “the huge support [for the rebels] that came through Turkey.” He also denied that his forces had used chlorine attacks, saying such accusations were “propaganda … to demonize the president, [and] to demonize the state.”
There is mounting evidence, however, of multiple chlorine attacks in Idlib province throughout last month. Human Rights Watch released a report on April 14 citing evidence that “strongly suggests” Syrian regime forces had launched at least three attacks, and perhaps as many as six, using toxic chemicals, sickening at least 206 people. The toxic gases were reportedly released by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian army helicopters.
The Security Council moved in early March to prevent such attacks. In a rare moment of agreement between the United States and Russia, which vetoed previous measures against the Assad regime, the council passed Resolution 2209 threatening action under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter — which authorizes the use of military force — should any party use chlorine as a weapon.
The question now is whether Security Council members will take action. On March 31, Power said “all evidence” suggested the Assad regime had launched the attacks, and that the United States supports an investigation “so that there can be culpability ascribed to the user of this monstrous weapon.”
Several weeks ago, the permanent five members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — privately discussed the prospect of establishing an investigation into the use of chlorine, which could establish who was responsible for carrying out the attacks. An ongoing inquiry by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had established that the toxic agent had been used against civilians — but it has no mandate to identify the perpetrators.
In the past, Russia, backed by China, had opposed any efforts to hold Syrian officials accountable for human rights abuses. In May 2014, Russia and China cast their vetoes to block a U.S.-backed push to authorize an International Criminal Court investigation into atrocities. But one Security Council member said Friday that Russia has engaged in “constructive” discussions with the United States and the other key Security Council powers on the need for holding perpetrators of chlorine attacks accountable for their crimes.
Two Security Council diplomats said the talks amongst the major powers had been suspended a couple of weeks ago, and have been put on the back burner. It remains unclear why, but one Security Council diplomat said that the key players on the body were overwhelmed addressing the crisis in Yemen.
It also remains unclear what kind of inquiry the United States would favor for establishing who is responsible for weaponizing chlorine. Britain, France, and other Western powers have been exploring the possibility of having the Security Council establish a commission of inquiry to determine who has carried out the chlorine attacks. But President Barack Obama’s administration has not reached an internal agreement about the best way to approach the problem.
“We need an attribution mechanism so we know precisely who carried out these attacks; all of the evidence of course shows that they come from helicopters, only the Assad regime has helicopters; that’s very clear to us,” Power told reporters after Thursday’s meeting. “But we need to move forward in a manner that also makes it very clear to all council members, and then those people responsible for these attacks have to be held accountable.
For Majd Khalaf, a coordinator with Syria’s civil defense teams, international help can’t come too soon. The civil defense volunteers provide emergency medical care to injured civilians following an attack. It was Khalaf’s job to coordinate the movement of the multiple teams in Idlib province during the March 16 attack, and ensure they had the necessary supplies to do their job.
Khalaf sees a parallel between the chlorine attacks in Idlib and the previous use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs in 2013. The Assad regime was accused of small-scale chemical attacks against rebel groups in the Damascus suburbs throughout the spring and summer of 2013, which went largely ignored by the international community. The regime then escalated by launching a large chemical attack on Aug. 21 in the rebel-held suburb of Ghouta, killing hundreds of people.
Khalaf fears a similar dynamic of international apathy and regime escalation is playing out in Idlib today. “We are afraid that the bad cycle the regime used before in [the Damascus suburbs], it is now using in Idlib,” he said. “And we are afraid that it will lead to a big tragedy, a big massacre against civilians.”
Foreign Policy’s U.N. senior correspondent Colum Lynch contributed to this report.
BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images