How Can We Know If a Chemical Weapons Attack Took Place in Syria?

Photo by Gwydion M. Williams | CC BY 2.0

Every atrocity in the Syrian civil war provokes a furious row about whether it happened and, if so, who was responsible for carrying it out. The merciless brutality of all sides combines with partisan reporting and lack of access for independent investigators to make it possible for doubts to be generated about even the most blatant war crime. One good rule is that participants in the war are often accurate about the crimes of their opponents while they invariably lie or are silent about their own.

This rule appears to hold good in the case of the poison gas attack on the city of Douma on 7 April, which killed at least 34 people and possibly twice as many. The Russian military claim that the attack was faked by pro-opposition activists and that samples taken from the site of where the civilians died were not toxic. The Syrian government issues blanket denials when accused of using poison gas.

But there is mounting evidence from neutral observers to confirm that chlorine was used last Saturday. The World Health Organisation says that local health authorities in Douma, with whom it is cooperating, confirm that on the day of the alleged bombing they treated 500 patients with the symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals. It reports that “there were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to the central nervous systems of those exposed”.

Other evidence for the gassing of civilians is…

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