Big price to pay, says Trump as Russia warns off military strike
BEIRUT, April 8, (Agencies): An alleged chemical attack that left at least 40 dead in Syria’s rebel-held town of Douma sparked international outrage Sunday, with US President Donald Trump warning there would be a “big price to pay”. As condemnation poured in, there were reports that just hours after the alleged attack rebel forces had agreed to evacuate Douma, their last holdout in the onetime opposition stronghold of eastern Ghouta.
Trump’s threat came exactly a year and a day after the US fired cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for a deadly sarin gas attack in 2017. “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday, lashing out at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a key ally of the regime. “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay,” he said.
Asked whether the US could again respond with a missile strike, White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert told ABC television: “I wouldn’t take anything off the table.” France has repeatedly said that evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria could prompt military action and said Sunday it would “do its duty” following the latest allegations. The regime, which denies all accusations of chemical weapons use, denounced the accusations as an “unconvincing broken record”. Kuwait Sunday strongly condemned attacks using rockets and barrel bombs against populated areas in eastern Ghouta in general and Douma in specific, killing scores of people and injuring many others.
Kuwait, through its non-permanent UN Security Council membership, would call for an urgent UNSC session to discuss how to act against “these dangerous and systematic violations of international humanitarian law, human rights and relevant Security Council resolutions,” a foreign ministry source said. The source expressed concern over the large number of victims and reported choking cases among civilians, calling on the international community to investigate the attacks in compliance with UNSC Resolution 2118.
He said Kuwait called anew on all parties to fully abide by UNSC Resolution 2401, lift the siege on eastern Ghouta, as well as reaching a peaceful resolution based on communique of Geneva I and UN Resolution 2254.
The Russian foreign ministry called the latest reports a provocation and warned against them being used as a pretext for military action. “A military intervention under far-fetched and fabricated pretexts in Syria, where there are Russian soldiers at the request of the legitimate Syrian government, is absolutely unacceptable and could have the most dire consequences,” it said in a statement. Syria’s White Helmets, who act as first responders in rebel-held areas of Syria, said the attack took place late on Saturday using “poisonous chlorine gas”. In a joint statement with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the White Helmets said more than 500 cases were brought to medical centres “with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent”. It said six people died while being treated, and rescuers found 42 more people dead in their homes with signs of similar symptoms.
Footage posted online by the White Helmets, which was not possible to verify, showed victims with yellowed skin crumpled on the ground and foaming at the mouth. Other residents could be seen receiving treatment at hospitals, with shell-shocked medics holding up gas masks to motionless infants. “The scene was horrifying. So many people were choking, so many people,” White Helmets member Firas al-Doumi told AFP from inside Douma. “Most died immediately. The majority were women and children,” he said. “We only have four oxygen machines,” said Mohammed, a doctor inside Douma who told AFP they were not enough to treat the dozens coming in with breathing problems. “The situation is really, really tragic. I’ve been working here for four years and have never seen what I saw in the last few hours,” he said. The reports prompted widespread condemnation and calls for an investigation. UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was “particularly alarmed”, adding that any confirmed use of chemical weapons would be “abhorrent”.
Pope Francis described the allegations as “terrible news”, saying: “Nothing, nothing can justify the use of such devices of extermination against defenceless people and populations.” London called for an investigation into what it said were the “deeply disturbing” reports and Ankara, which has backed rebels against Assad, said it had a “strong suspicion” he was to blame. Regime ally Iran backed Damascus however, saying the allegations were a Western conspiracy and echoing Russia’s warning against foreign military action.
Douma is the last remaining opposition- held town in Ghouta, once the rebels’ main bastion outside Damascus but now ravaged by a seven-week regime assault. Since Feb 18, Syrian and Russian forces have waged a fierce military onslaught and negotiated two withdrawals to retake control of 95 percent of Ghouta. The agreements, brokered by Moscow last month, saw more than 46,000 rebels and civilians bussed to the northwest opposition-held Idlib province. It appeared Douma would follow suit, with a preliminary deal that saw hundreds of civilians and rebels from Jaish al-Islam quit the town last week. The rebels had been hoping to land a deal that would keep them in control of Douma, but Syria’s government has insisted on their departure. After days of talks that brought a brief respite from the assault, the negotiations fell apart and ferocious bombing resumed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said nearly 100 people were killed in air raids on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, state media announced Damascus had reached a deal that would see rebels leave Douma within 48 hours.
In exchange Jaish al-Islam would release hostages it had been holding, the source said. State news agency SANA reported dozens of buses were already entering Douma to begin the evacuations. There was no immediate confirmation of the deal from rebel sources. Ghouta was among the areas hit in a 2013 sarin gas attack that was blamed on Syria’s government. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Sunday said reports of a chemical attack in a rebel-held town in Syria were extremely worrying and called for the United Nations Security Council to meet quickly to examine the situation. Le Drian said France strongly condemned attacks and bombings by Syrian government forces in the last 24 hours in the town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, adding they were a “gross violation of international humanitarian law.” France would work with allies to verify reports that chemical weapons were used, Le Drian said. Referring to President Emmanuel Macron’s warning that France could strike unilaterally if there was a deadly chemical attack, Le Drian said that Paris would assume all its responsibilities in the fight against the proliferation of chemical weapons.