US Congress hears graphic Syria chlorine attacks evidence

US Congress hears graphic Syria chlorine attacks evidence
A network of Syrian doctors presented evidence to US lawmakers on Wednesday showing regime military systemically using weaponised chlorine against the civilian population.
6 min read
18 June, 2015
A man receives treatment following a suspected chlorine attack.Idlib on 17 April 2015. [Getty]

After watching graphic footage of doctors trying to help child victims of a gas attack, lawmakers in Washington on Wednesday renewed calls for a US-led no fly zone over Syria.  

They were also warned that the use of this chlorine gas could rise.  

"I'm a doctor and I'm very familiar with death. But I never seen a more obscene way to kill children and never watched so many suffer in such an obscene manner," doctor Annie Sparrow told lawmakers.  

The testimonies came as a group of Syrian doctors presented their evidence to the House Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which they say proves the regime's systemic use of chemical weapons.

While the Syrian government has handed over its stocks of chemical weapons for destruction by the international community, chlorine does not count as a banned material because it has many uses, such as purifying water. 

"The Syrian government is using chlorine gas with impunity," Washington’s former envoy to told the committee.  

President Bashar al-Assad has denied being behind a series of chlorine gas attacks launched in barrel bombs from helicopters over the north western province of Idlib since March. As many as 45 attacks have been reported.  

Despite a UN resolution outlawing chlorine gas attacks, Ford said that Assad, is not deterred.   

     Among the victims were three small children, Aisha, three, her sister Sara, two, and brother one-year-old Mohammad.

"His forces are running out of manpower and as that dynamic goes forward the Syrian regime will more and more want to use chemical weapons to make up for those manpower shortages," Ford said.   

Doctor Mohamed Tennari, the lead medical coordinator for the charity the Syrian American Medical Society (Sams) in Idlib province, vividly described the night of March 16, when a wave of explosive barrel bombs were dropped from helicopters over his home town of Sarmin, filling the air with "a bleach-like odour."   

"Dozens of people experienced difficulty breathing, with their eyes and throats burning, and many began secreting from the mouth," he said, speaking through a translator.  

Among the victims were three small children, Aisha, three, her sister Sara, two, and brother one-year-old Mohammad. They "were a sickly pale colour when they arrived, a sign of severe lack of oxygen and chemical exposure," Tennari said.  

Doctors were forced to treat them as they lay on the body of their grandmother, who had succumbed to the deadly poison, as they had no free beds.  

"As quickly as we worked, we could not save them," Tennari said, after a video of the scene was played in the chamber. The children's mother and father also died.  

A chlorine gas bomb had fallen down their ventilation shaft, turning their basement where they had tried to shelter into "a makeshift gas chamber." 

'No plans' for a no-fly zone

Sparrow described working on the ground in Syria. Her voice cracked with emotion.  

"Syrian children and Syrian civilians deserve protection and the United States can provide it," she said.   

The US administration has long ruled out setting up a no-fly zone over parts of Syria as too complicated and difficult to administer. And State Department spokesman John Kirby reiterated Wednesday that it was not on the table.  

"There's no plans to conduct or to effect a no-fly zone over Syria with respect to the use of these chemicals. What has to happen is he (Assad) has to stop using them," Kirby said.  

But Sparrow backed the idea, also put forward by Ford and Tennari.  

"Creating a no-bomb zone would stop the most important tools that have been used to slaughter and terrorise Syrian civilians, especially the children who are the most

     The Syrian American Medical Society (Sams) says it has built a dossier documenting 31 separate chlorine attacks.

vulnerable to these toxic gases and whose small bodies are literally ripped apart by the hideous shrapnel inside these bombs," Sparrow said. 

The US "policy has to change" and implementing a no-fly zone would lead to "denying Assad ownership of the skies," agreed Representative Ed Royce, committee chairman.  

"Syrians would no longer be forced to choose between staying above ground where they could be killed by the shrapnel Assad packs inside his barrel bombs or going below ground where they are more vulnerable to suffocating from chlorine gas," he said.  

The Syrian American Medical Society (Sams) says it has built a dossier documenting 31 separate chlorine attacks, in Idlib province alone, between 16 March and 9 June.

The charity, which runs 95 medical facilities in the country, has compiled a file of evidence of the attacks including data, testimonies, photos and videos.  Sams claims at least ten people were killed and 520 were left seeking medical treatment in the 31 documented attacks. 

The US is engaged in an air campaign against the extremist militia the Islamic State Group (IS, formerly ISIS) in the east of the country but has been reluctant to get drawn into the wider conflict or tackle the regime forces. 

In August 2012 President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.” 

Around a year later, after United Nations' inspectors confirmed the use of chemical weapons, the US rowed back from intervention by securing a deal with the Syrian government to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles. 

However, with frequent reports in recent months of chemical weapons attacks in Syria pressure is once again being put on the US administration to act.

Rights group Human Rights Watch conducted its own investigation and found that the Syrian military used toxic chemicals around Idlib in March.

Bomb-site evidence suggested that domestic canisters had been filled with chlorine gas and dropped from government helicopters in barrel bombs.  

The Syrian leader has used a number of high profile interviews on international media to repeatedly deny the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.

The international body for monitoring chemical weapons, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), is understood to be investigating this latest alleged series of chlorine attacks but its current mandate does not allow it to assign blame for such attacks.

Recent reports from Syria suggest some militant factions are developing their own chemical capabilities and Islamic State Group, which is a prominent force in Syria and Iraq, has used chlorine in it battles in Iraq.

Sams however argues that all of the attacks that it has documented were launched from helicopters, which are only operated by the Syria military.

Although chlorine bombs are less affective than conventional weapons they have a strong psychological advantage of spreading fear and driving people from areas.

The chlorine filled barrel bombs rarely explode but rather leak the gas, which is heavier than air, so it seeps into homes and down into basements where people are likely to have taken shelter from conventional weapons.

Once it is breathed in the gas reacts with fluid in the lungs to create hydrochloric acid leading to agonising pain, asphyxiation, and in extreme cases, death.