CAPITOL HILL - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is again systematically using chemical weapons to kill, terrorize and disperse civilians in rebel-held areas - Syrian doctors and human rights activists told a U.S. congressional committee Wednesday
President Assad had denied the use of chemical weapons, saying there is no evidence. In response to earlier pressure, Assad declared that he had gotten rid of his entire stockpile of chemical weapons.
But Dr. Mohamed Tennari of the Syrian-American Medical Society told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Syrian military began launching helicopter attacks using chlorine gas on March 16 in his hometown of Sarmin.
Tennari showed the committee disturbing video of dead and wounded children and others from that night, and told what he saw when he went to the hospital to treat the injured.
"Dozens of people experienced difficulty breathing, with their eyes and throats burning, and many began secreting from the mouth," he said. "We lay people on the floor as the beds filled up. Our small field hospital became chaotic."
See doctors' evidence of new chlorine gas attacks in Syria. (WARNING: This report contains graphic images that some may find disturbing.)
Tennari presented the panel a dossier of data, photos and other evidence documenting 31 separate chlorine gas attacks in Syria since March. The witnesses emphasized that only the Syrian leader has the helicopters to deliver the barrel bombs with chlorine gas.
Dr. Annie Sparrow of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai works in the region to train doctors, and said she has never seen anything like this.
“I am a doctor, and I am very familiar with death," she said. "But I have never seen a more obscene way to kill children."
Lawmakers, including Representative Elliot Engel, were visibly shaken by the images.
"I am not usually speechless. But after watching those pictures of the children dying, I am speechless," he said.
Calls for a No-fly Zone
Engel said he and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce have asked the Pentagon to seriously consider leading efforts to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. Royce said such a zone would protect civilians from the deadly combination of barrel bombs and chlorine gas dropped by aircraft.
"Syrians would no longer be forced to choose between staying above ground where they could be killed by the shrapnel Assad packs inside his barrel bombs or going below ground where they are more vulnerable to suffocating from chlorine gas," he said.
Royce said if the United States and its regional allies would set up a no-fly zone, deciding to go to school or the market would no longer be a life or death decision for Syrians.
But other lawmakers, such as Democratic Representative Albio Sires, said he is reluctant to have the United States get involved in a conflict with the Syrian government. He asked why Syria’s Arab neighbors don’t do anything to protect suffering civilians.
Asked about a no-fly zone, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, rejected the idea at a House hearing Tuesday. Power said President Barack Obama believes the risk of a direct confrontation with the Syrian military is too high.