Syria Deeply: Another alleged chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta, evacuations begin from Douma, and a missile strike on one of the largest Syrian army air bases

Syria Deeply
Apr. 9th, 2018
This Week in Syria.

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Suspected Chemical Attack: A suspected chemical attack in the town of Douma killed dozens of people late Saturday night in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrian Civil Defense (SCD) said they documented at least 42 fatalities, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 80, including 40 people who reportedly died from suffocation. More than 500 patients being treated in medical facilities in Douma reported symptoms compatible with exposure to poison gas, including difficulty breathing, foaming at the mouth and burning eyes, according to a joint statement released by the SCD and the Syrian American Medical Society.

Activists and medics blamed the Syrian government for the attack, but Damascus denied allegations, saying they were “fabrications” by the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has investigated previous claims of chemical weapons use in Syria, expressed “grave concern” about the alleged attack and opened a new investigation. However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow’s “military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent … and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians.”

U.S. president Donald Trump accused the Syrian government on Twitter of carrying out the alleged attack, warning that there would be a “big price to pay” for using chemical weapons. So far, Washington has not specified if, when or how it would respond – Trump is reportedly expected to make a decision on the matter in the next 24-48 hours. U.S. defense secretary James Mattis said on Monday that he would not “rule out anything right now.”

The United Nations Security Council met on Monday to discuss the situation in Douma. The U.S. circulated an updated version of a draft resolution calling for a U.N. inquiry into chemical weapons use in Syria that Washington had initially put forward last month, according to Reuters.

Missile strike: Russia and Syria have accused Israel of launching a missile strike on a Syrian airbase near Homs on Monday. As of Monday afternoon, Israel had not confirmed nor denied the reports.

At least 14 people were killed in the strike on the Tiyas, or T-4 base, including members of Iran-backed paramilitary groups, Reuters reported. At least two Iranians were among those killed, the semi-official Iranian Fars news outlet said, according to Reuters.

T4 is one of the Syrian army’s largest bases, and is allegedly also used by Iranian and Iranian-allied militias.

Russia’s defense ministry said that two Israeli fighter jets launched eight missiles on the T4 air base from Lebanon’s airspace. Syria shot down five missiles, and the remaining three hit the western part of the air base, according to Moscow. The Lebanese army confirmed that four Israeli warplanes had violated its airspace on early Monday, flying in the direction of the Syrian border, but did not specify whether the jets were responsible for the strike on T4.

Syria initially accused the U.S. of carrying out the strike, as it came after Trump’s “big price to pay” warning for the Douma attack. Syrian state media called it an American “aggression.” U.S. officials denied responsibility.

“At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting airstrikes in Syria,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable.”

Rebel evacuations: Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel group in Eastern Ghouta, began to exit the town of Douma on Sunday, in the first phase of a Russian-backed evacuation agreement, Reuters reported. Dozens of fighters from Jaish al-Islam and their families were bussed to the northern city of Jarablus after striking an evacuation deal with the Syrian government. Almost simultaneously, hostages freed by Jaish al-Islam arrived at a government-held crossing.

Both developments are part of an evacuation deal brokered on Sunday between the government and rebels, with mediation from Russia. Under the agreement, the Syrian government grants rebels safe exit to northern Syria in return for the release of hundreds of hostages and prisoners held by the group.

The deal also grants an offer of reconciliation for those rebels who wish to stay in Douma. Citing the Russian RIA news agency, Reuters said that Jaish al-Islam will evacuate Douma in two batches. Syrian state media said the rebels will be evacuated within 48 hours. If completed, the complete evacuation would give the government complete control of Eastern Ghouta.

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