On 7th April, another chemical attack took place in Syria, this time in the town of Douma in Damascus. But what has been the aftermath of the attack?
Over the past twelve days, the conflict in Syria has witnessed some of its most significant developments in recent months. On Friday 6th April, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) launched its final attack on Douma, what was then the final rebel holdout in the besieged Damascus suburb of East Ghouta.
The suburb had been besieged for over four years, with government forces only in the last two months expending all resources necessary to reclaim the entirety of East Ghouta.
The ground offensive was supported by heavy shelling and airstrikes during which reports began to emerge on Saturday 7th April concerning the use of chemical weapons on Douma. The initial number of reported casualties, starting at a handful, gradually rose, with most media reporting somewhere between 50 and 100 dead and hundreds more reported injured 48 hours after the attack.
The attack drew widespread shock from many countries across the world. Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who “strongly suspected the regime” called for the world to pay attention to the “children, women and civilians slaughtered and martyred in East Ghouta”. While the Saudi Foreign Ministry expressed “deep concern and condemnation” and called on the international community to “shoulder its responsibility toward protecting civilians in Syria” and prevent similar attacks from occurring. Unsurprisingly, Tehran and Moscow came out in support of Damascus, with the former denouncing the allegations as a “conspiracy”.
Following the attack, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) convened an emergency meeting to discuss the recent events. The UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called for an independent investigation, noting that a lack of clarity and consensus had prevented concrete action in previous instances, most prominently in the Khan Sheikhoun attack in April 2017, which occurred almost exactly a year beforehand.
Yet, the subsequent week did not differ much from this, as it revolved around to-ing and fro-ing at the UNSC. On Tuesday 10th April, Russia and the United States submitted two competing UNSC resolutions to investigate the chemical attack in Douma. The main distinction between the US and Russian proposal was that the former sought a mechanism under the auspices of the UNSC while the latter proposed that the investigation be handled by the Organisation For the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). However, both were vetoed by the opposite side, thus preventing any resolutions from passing.
In the early hours of Saturday 14th April, the US, the UK and France launched a series of airstrikes aimed at Syrian Government facilities linked to the country’s chemical weapon programme following the attack in Douma. According to a statement, 105 missiles were launched, striking two sites in Damascus, a research centre in Barmah and the Mezzeh Military Airbase, and one site in Homs, the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Storage Site.
In the aftermath of these attacks, a team belonging to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was finally granted access into Syria, landing into Damascus to begin their fact-finding mission. While this entry occurred now almost six days ago, the investigation has been continually fraught with delays, with each side blaming each other for the obstructions.
More worryingly, the fact-finding team was forced to leave Douma yesterday after coming under fire from unknown armed personnel. The reports of the investigators leaving were accompanied by claims of the Russian Military Police in Douma preventing access to the site of the attack.
The Director-General of the OPCW, Ahmet Üzümcü, stated today that the investigators will not go into Douma without security guarantees. United Nations officials have since announced that they are negotiating with Russian and Syrian officials to allow for the safe entry of the investigators into Douma.
The investigation has subsequently been suspended following the attacks, leaving it uncertain when the mission will resume.