An estimated 70 people, including many children, are thought to be dead after a suspected chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to the Independent.
The Syrian opposition has released several shocking videos and photographs to social media which appear to show lines of dead children, as well as children foaming at the mouth. Foam in the mouth is a telltale sign of the use of sarin gas, a chemical weapon that Assad had previously claimed not to have anymore.
Soon after the suspected gas attack, a hospital treating victims was also hit by an air strike, with videos appearing online that seem to show the moment that the bombs struck. Victims overwhelmed the hospitals in Khan Sheikhoun and were evacuated to medical facilities all over Idlib province, with some even receiving treatment over the border in Turkey.
The town of Khan Sheikhoun lies in Idlib province, an area of northern Syria that is close to the front lines between government and opposition forces. It was already filled with thousands of refugees from around Hama, a neighbouring province that has been the site of vicious recent fighting. Regime forces are seeking to destroy the largest remaining outpost of opposition territory, which stretches from Aleppo across to the Turkish border and down to Khan Sheikhoun.
The Syrian opposition claims that the Khan Sheikhoun attack used chemical weapons is not yet verified further than reports that come from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in the United Kingdom. Groups such as Save the Children have reported mass deaths, including that of minors, but have as of yet not confirmed that chemical weapons were used.
Chemical weapon experts were more confident in their assertions. "This absolutely reeks of 2013 all over again," Jerry Smith, operations chief for the UN team that inspected the destruction of Syrian regime's chemical weapons, told The Guardian. One of the worst massacres of the conflict, 1,300 people were killed, the Ghouta attack prompted the UN to step in and dismantle the Assad regime's stockpiles of sarin. "If you look at the footage itself, the victims don't have any physical trauma injuries. This appears to be some sort of organo-phosphate poison. In theory, a nerve agent," said Smith.
Credit: PA; A victim of a suspected chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian city of Idlib
Credit: PA; At lease 70 people are feared to be dead
Syrian state spokespeople were quick to distance themselves from the suggestion that the attack used chemical weapons. Speaking to the BBC World Service, Syrian MP Fares Shehabi said: "Nonsense, as usual. We are used to these fabrications and fake news. We don't need to use chemical attacks, actually we gave up our chemical arsenal two or three years ago."
He went on to allege that the Al Nusra Front, an Islamist group, had dug in to a nearby mountain and stored chemical weapons, which had been discharged during a regular air strike. "We don't use chemical weapons because we don't have [them]," added Shehabi.
The Russian defence ministry also issued a statement that claimed that its warplanes had not been in the Idlib region and backed the Syrian regime claim that an airstrike had hit what they called a 'terrorist warehouse' that stockpiled chemical weapons for use by Rebel forces in Syria and Iraq.
Hamish de Bretton Gordon, former head of the UK military's regiment concerning chemical warfare, told BBC Radio that the Russian claim was 'completely untrue' and 'fanciful', stating clearly that 'if you blow up sarin, you destroy it'.
Credit: PA; Children play on a street next to a building destroyed in an aerial bombing in Ghouta in 2013
Aside from the horrific Ghouta attack in 2013, the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War has been relatively small scale. Only chlorine gas, which was not covered by the UN anti-chemical weapons deal because of its industrial uses, has been verified as having been deployed in Syria. This attack would represent the first major deviation that the Syrian regime has taken from the deal and a confirmation of Assad's increasing confidence to defy the West.
Credit: PA; Saddam Hussein was globally criticised for using nerve gas in the 1990s
The outrage that followed the previous use of sarin in 2013 was followed by widespread condemnation in the West and the Obama administration fought hard to put the chemical stockpiles of the Assad regime beyond use. They announced the destruction of all Syrian government chemical weapons in late 2013, but that has been increasingly doubted. There was an attack in Hama, another city in Idlib province, in late 2016 that the Syrian authorities claimed used sarin, but international observers were unable to obtain the biological and environmental samples required to confirm the allegations.
Chemical weapons have long been a feature of war in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein was globally criticised for his use of nerve gas against thousands of Kurds in the early 1990s, while the Iran-Iraq War of the mid 1980s was marked by extensive use of chemical weapons. The presence of chemical weapons in Syria in the first place was due to a perceived mutual deterrent effect that it had on Israel, a nuclear weapons state.