Diplomats have clashed over whether Bashar Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in northern Syria, as US intelligence, Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations’ health agency said evidence pointed to nerve gas exposure.
The Trump administration and other world leaders said the Syrian government was to blame, but Moscow, a key ally of Assad, said the assault was caused by a Syrian air strike that hit a rebel stockpile of chemical arms. More than 80 people were killed.
Early US assessments showed the use of chlorine gas and traces of the nerve agent sarin in Tuesday’s attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to two US officials.
Israeli military intelligence also believes Syrian government forces were behind the attack, according to defence sources. Israel believes President Assad has tons of chemical weapons still in his arsenal, despite a concerted operation three years ago by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to rid the government of its stockpile, the Israeli officials said.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also blamed the Syrian government for the attack.
In Khan Sheikhoun, rescue workers found terrified survivors still hiding in shelters as another wave of air strikes battered the town on Wednesday.
The effects of the attack overwhelmed hospitals near the town, leading paramedics to send patients to medical facilities across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, as well as to Turkey. Turkey’s Health Ministry said three victims died receiving treatment inside its borders and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the death toll at 86.
Victims of the attack showed signs of nerve gas exposure, the World Health Organisation and Doctors Without Borders said, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions and constricted pupils. Paramedics were using fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.
Medical teams also reported smelling bleach on survivors of the attack, suggesting chlorine gas was also used, Doctors Without Borders said. The magnitude of the attack was reflected in the images of the dead – children piled in heaps for burial; a father carrying his lifeless young twins.
The images were reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead and prompted an agreement brokered by the US and Russia to disarm Assad’s chemical stockpile. Western nations blamed government forces for that attack, where effects were concentrated on opposition-held areas.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis said during his general audience that he was “watching with horror at the latest events in Syria” and that he “strongly deplored the unacceptable massacre”. Tuesday’s attack happened just 60 miles from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government, a close ally of Syrian rebels, set up a decontamination centre at a border crossing in the province of Hatay, where the victims were initially treated before being moved to hospitals.
At the United Nations, US ambassador Nikki Haley warned Donald Trump’s administration would take action if the Security Council did not in response to the attack.
“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies – babies, little babies – with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines,” Mr Trump said in the White House Rose Garden.
The president declined to say what the US would do in response, but hsaid his “attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much”.
The council was convened in an emergency session to consider a resolution that would back an investigation by the chemical weapons watchdog into the attack and compel the Syrian government to co-operate with a probe. The resolution was drafted by the US, Britain and France.
Syria’s government denied it carried out any chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, but Russia’s Defence Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian air strike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the town’s eastern outskirts.
British UN ambassador Matthew Rycroft dismissed that account, saying the UK had seen nothing that would suggest rebels “have the sort of chemical weapons that are consistent with the symptoms that we saw yesterday”. Diplomats were also meeting in Brussels for a major donors’ conference on the future of Syria and the region, with representatives from 70 countries present.
A top Syrian rebel representative said he held UN mediator Staffan De Mistura “personally responsible” for the attack. Mohammad Alloush, the rebels’ chief negotiator at UN-mediated talks with the Syrian government, said the envoy must begin labelling the Syrian government as responsible for killing civilians and the UN’s silence “legitimises” the strategy.
“The true solution for Syria is to put Bashar Assad, the chemical weapons user, in court, and not at the negotiations table,” said Mr Alloush, who is an official in the Islam Army rebel faction.
Syria’s rebels, and the Islam Army in particular, are also accused of human rights abuses in Syria, but rights watchdogs attribute the overwhelming portion of civilian causalities over the course of the six-year war to the actions of government forces and their allies.