BEIRUT — Chemical warfare experts are comparing the suspected poison gas attack on a suburb of Damascus this week to a deadly chemical weapons assault launched by Saddam Hussein on the Kurdish town of Halabja during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq.
Syrian opposition leaders are saying the attack this week killed hundreds and involved Sarin gas, a banned chemical warfare nerve agent. They say it was launched by forces trying to protect President Bashar al-Assad, whose government the opposition has been trying to overthrow for the past 29 months.
The chemical warfare experts say the look on the victims faces this week, the convulsions and the pinpoint pupils of their eyes were all reminiscent of the images from Halabja. They also say the tactic of first unleashing conventional air and artillery bombardment and then following up with the gas is similar to the line of attack employed by Saddam Hussein’s forces.
The Halabja in attack in March of 1988 killed up to 5,000 people and Sarin gas was one of the agents used in the assault.
“From the evidence I have seen coming out the last 24 hours from Syria, there are tremendous similarities with the attack on Halabja 25 years ago when Saddam used chemical and conventional weapons on the Kurds,” said Hamish Bretton-Gordon, a British chemical warfare expert.
“The windows were broken in and the roofs were broken in at Halabja by conventional artillery fire and air strikes to make the gas more effective to get into rooms and cellars,” Bretton-Gordon said. “We saw that yesterday [August 21] in Syria. There are many dead families in their cellars - this again is exactly like what happened in Iraq.
“When the bombardment started,” he continued, “many people dived in to their cellars expecting to be safe but, of course, Sarin gas and mustard gas is heavier than air and sinks down into the cellars. If you want to create genocide and kill lots of people this is probably the most effective way to do it.”
Syrian opposition activists say they are still finding the dead in cellars and that many of the victims are children. Doctors working in makeshift hospitals in the Damascus suburbs in the Ghouta region say they were overwhelmed with the wounded.
Preceded by air and artillery bombardment
Activists said Wednesday's attack took place after a heavy government bombardment in the region surrounding Damascus, where the army is trying to drive out rebel forces.
Video from the area posted by opposition activists shows dozens of bodies in the makeshift hospitals with no visible signs of injuries. Other videos show the injured convulsing and foaming at the mouth.
The Syrian government has denied carrying out any chemical attack, calling the allegations “illogical and fabricated.” Syrian government officials say the claims are being made up in order to try to persuade the West to intervene.
U.N. spokesmen said Thursday Secretary General Ban Ki-moon believes the attack “needs to be investigated without delay.” He has called for international chemical warfare inspectors “presently in Damascus, to be granted permission and access to swiftly investigate the incident.”
Independent chemical weapons experts and Western diplomats say they don’t believe the images of the dead and dying could be faked.
“I don’t think there is anyway the symptoms could have been faked, especially with the many children and babies we are seeing dying,” said Bretton-Gordon.
Andrew Green, a former British ambassador to Syria, says that while there is no firm evidence yet, “it is clear there was a tragedy in Damascus and that it was almost certainly chemical weapons and the Syrian government is very anxious to make sure no one gets there to find out.”
Permission needed to inspect attack sites
The British diplomat says Assad apparently is convinced he can get away with using chemical weapons.
“He has calculated this,” Green said of Assad. “It is very striking, if the regime were innocent they would be making every effort to get the inspectors in there, but they are doing the opposite and the Russians are backing them up, which suggests to me that the Russians think there are matters here that need to be hidden.”
The U.N. weapons team in Damascus is there to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use in the civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead. The team has a mandate to visit three sites previously agreed between the U.N. and the Syrian government after months of negotiations.
Chemical weapons experts say they have up to 10 days to get into the Damascus suburbs to be able to determine with any certainly if any chemical weapons were used, and if they were, which type. Sarin is a non-persistent gas, meaning that it dissipates quickly.
French chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders say it is important to get a team in the sooner the better.
“One of the key elements is to get the U.N. inspection team in there and they would be able to collect a variety of types of evidence from blood samples to soil samples and conduct autopsies.”