By Arab News
The US, UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pope Francis condemned Saturday’s chemical gas attack on Syria’s Douma, while Russia and the Syrian regime denied claims of chemical weapons use.
Rescue workers said dozens of civilians had been killed in the attack and at least 80 civilians have been killed since Friday after the regime launched fresh air raids on rebel-held areas of Eastern Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
The head of the United Nations said on Sunday he was “particularly alarmed” by the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joined world leaders and global entities in voicing alarm and said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned” about renewed violence in the city of Douma, citing reports that sustained airstrikes and shelling had killed civilians, destroyed infrastructure and damaged health facilities.
“The secretary-general is particularly alarmed by allegations that chemical weapons have been used against civilian populations in Douma,” the statement said.
While noting that the United Nations was not in a position to verify such reports, Guterres said that any confirmed use of chemical weapons would be “abhorrent.”
He called on all parties to cease fighting and to provide “humanitarian access across Syria to all people in need.”
US President Donald Trump said there will be a “big price to pay” after what he called a “mindless CHEMICAL attack” in Syria, allegedly involving chlorine gas.
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Trump also called Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad an “animal.”
“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay,” Trump said in a pair of tweets which began with a discussion of the attack in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, where rescue workers alleged that regime loyalists had used chlorine gas.
“Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world,” the president said.
“Open area immediately for medical help and verification,” Trump said. “Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!”
Trump also criticized his predecessor Barack Obama for not striking after warning that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line.”
“If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line in The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!” Trump said.
Meanwhile, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, “these reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community.”
“The Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately,” she added, noting that “Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks.”
The United Kingdom called on the need to open an urgent international investigation into the chemical attack reports.
In a press statement issued by the UK Foreign Ministry, a spokesperson said that the Assad regime and his supporters must end the violence against innocent civilians.
“The reports that showed a large number of victims in the chemical attack in the city of Douma are disturbing and, if proved correct, will be further evidence of the brutality of the Assad regime and the disregard of its supporters of international laws,” the statement read.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said reports of the chemical attack 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 Douma, 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.
The European Union said the evidence points to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against a besieged rebel-held town in Syria, calling for an international response.
“The evidence points towards yet another chemical attack by the regime,” the EU said in a statement. “It is a matter of grave concern that chemical weapons continue to be used, especially on civilians. The European Union condemns in the strongest terms the use of chemical weapons and calls for an immediate response by the international community.”
The bloc called on the UN Security Council to re-establish its checks to identify perpetrators of chemical attacks and on Russia and Iran to use their influence with Assad to prevent further attacks.
Turkey strongly condemned what it said was a chemical weapons attack in Douma, saying there was a “strong suspicion” the Assad regime was responsible.
“We strongly condemn the attack and we have the strong suspicion it was carried out by the regime, whose record on the use of chemical weapons is known by the international community,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement.
Turkey said that the incident showed that past UN Security Council resolutions on the use of chemical weapons in Syria were “once again” being ignored.
The foreign ministry called for an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and said it expected condemnation from the international community.
The foreign ministry statement did not explicitly refer to Russia and Iran, maintaining Turkey’s caution in not lashing out at its partners.
But it called on “the parties who have influence over the Syrian regime” to ensure that such attacks are halted and punished.
It noted that “in the past no measures have been taken against these attacks.”
At the end of a Mass in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope said that, “there is no such thing as a good war and a bad war. Nothing, but nothing, can justify the use of such instruments of extermination on defenseless people and populations.”
He urged that “military and political leaders choose another path, that of negotiations, which is the only one that can bring about peace and not death and destruction.”
Moscow, Tehran, Damascus deny claims
Russia’s military is rejecting claims that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons in an attack on the rebel-held town of Douma.
Maj. Gen. Yuri Yevtushenko was quoted by Russian news agencies on Sunday as saying Russia was prepared to “promptly send Russian specialists in radiation, chemical and biological protection to Douma after its liberation from fighters to gather data that will confirm the fabricated nature of these statements.”
Yevtushenko said “a number of Western countries” are trying to prevent the resumption of an operation to remove Army of Islam fighters from Douma and “to this end they are using the West’s pet theme of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces.”
Iran also condemned the allegations as a “conspiracy” against its ally Assad and a pretext for military action.
“Such allegations and accusations by the Americans and certain Western countries signal a new conspiracy against the Syrian government and people, and a pretext for military action,” Iran’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Tehran warned any military intervention would “certainly complicate the situation” in Syria and the wider region.
“With the Syrian army having the upper hand on the ground against the armed terrorists, it would not be rational for it to use chemical weapons,” the statement said.
Syria’s foreign ministry denounced accusations the government had deployed chemical weapons as an “unconvincing broken record.”
“Allegations of chemical use have become an unconvincing broken record, except for some countries that trade with the blood of civilians and support terrorism in Syria,” state news agency SANA quoted a ministry source as saying.
“Every time the Syrian Arab Army advances in the fight against terrorism, allegations of chemical use are used as an excuse to prolong the life of terrorists in Douma,” it said.
Douma is the last rebel-held town in Eastern Ghouta, once the opposition’s main bastion near Damascus but now battered by a seven-week regime assault.
The offensive has recaptured 95 percent of Ghouta, and the government announced on Sunday that it had reached a deal for rebels to be evacuated from their last holdout in Douma.