Amid growing international outrage over Tuesday's chemical attack that killed scores of civilians in an opposition-held town in northwest Syria, the use of nerve agents was confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO), clearly showing that the Assad regime is committing a war crime. WHO said the victims of the latest attacks show symptoms of nerve agent damage "including acute respiratory distress as the main cause of death. Some cases appear to show additional signs consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents."
As the Assad regime's massacres in the region continue, tens of thousands of civilians living in Idlib started to leave the town due to a possible chemical weapon contamination and any risks of new poisoning. While around 500 people were affected by the gas, civilians are looking for safe havens. Many families have migrated to the more secure towns of Idlib under the control of opposition groups, with most of them coming to Atme camp on the border of Syria and Turkey, about 70 kilometers from Khan Shaykun on the border with Turkey. The latest chemical attack left more than 100 civilians dead. Five-hundred civilians, mostly children, have been affected by the chlorine gas attack carried out by regime warplanes in Khan Shaykun town in Idlib.
The latest chemical attack was seen as the worst in the county's six-year war.
The reports claim that it was the third chemical attack in over a week in Syria as the Assad regime consistently targets residential areas. The first two attacks were reported in Hama province, an area close to yesterday's chemical attack.
The U.N. secretary-general said that the chemical attack in Idlib, Syria that killed over 100 civilians showed that war crimes in the country are continuing.
"The horrific events of yesterday demonstrate unfortunately that war crimes are going on in Syria [and that] international humanitarian law is being violated frequently," Antonio Guterres told reporters in Brussels ahead of a conference on the future of Syria.
The U.N. chief added that he was "confident that the Security Council will live up to its responsibilities" at its emergency meeting.
Russia's defense ministry said yesterday that Syrian jets bombed a rebel depot in Khan Sheikhun housing "toxic substances" that were being put in bombs. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman did not say what agent was used in the attack but accused the opposition of the latest chemical attack, asserting that they had used the same chemical weapons in Aleppo last year.
The Syrian opposition has dismissed as a "lie" claims by Russia, an ally of Damascus, that Syrian government planes hit a militant depot being used to manufacture chemical weapons, causing dozens of deaths. "Someone is claiming that strikes targeted an arms depot. This is a lie," Bashar al-Hakim, the deputy head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said. "Dangers of the Syrian regime on the Syrian people are greater than any other side," al-Hakim adds at a televised press conference in Istanbul.
Syria's opposition also said the latest comments from Washington softening its line against Bashar al-Assad were encouraging him to commit more crimes, after a deadly suspected chemical attack blamed on the regime. "Until now, this [U.S.] administration has done nothing and adopted an attitude of a spectator, making statements that give the regime an opportunity to commit more crimes."
Last week, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and other top officials in the new administration of President Donald Trump have said ousting Assad is no longer a priority.
"You pick and choose your battles," U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told reporters, echoing comments made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a visit to Turkey last week. But in a toughening of rhetoric, the White House accused Assad of carrying out a "reprehensible" and "intolerable" chemical attack in Syria.
The latest incident means Trump is faced with same dilemma that faced his predecessor, Barack Obama: whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using banned weapons, or compromise and accept the Syrian leader remaining in power at the risk of looking weak.
Trump described Tuesday's incident as "heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime," but also faulted Obama for having failed to enforce the red line four years ago.
The draft U.N. Security Council statement drawn up by Washington, London and Paris condemned the attack and demanded an investigation. Russia has the power to veto it, which it has done to block all previous resolutions that would harm Assad, most recently in February.