Gruesome scenes played out Wednesday morning in footage of the overcrowded hospitals of Arbeen, a suburb east of Damascus. People writhe on the floor screaming, as more and more dead fill the hallways. Doctors and nurses try to revive the victims with onion juice and garlic. They rub onion halves on their skin, pour cold water over them as they twitch uncontrollably.
"What else can we do? We don't have anything else," says Abu Ahmad, a pharmacist who lives in Arbeen. The area has been under the control of the rebels since the beginning of the year and, for the past few months, almost entirely cut off from the outside world by the military forces under Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad. Some 10,000 people still live there.
As of Wednesday, the death toll in Arbeen was 63. But if what the opposition is reporting turns out to be true, that is only a small sliver of the carnage: Up to 1,300 people were allegedly killed in a toxic gas attack by the Syrian army that day.
Shocking videos have been uploaded to YouTube. In them, children are seen to make up a large percentage of the dead. The videos have already had political consequences, as governments around the world reacted with horror. On Wednesday evening, the UN Security Council announced the need for "clarity" about the reported use of chemical weapons, but they didn't reach agreement about launching an investigation.
Little Doubt of Chemical Attack
The Syrian government has rejected the allegations. But experts agree that the sheer number of photos, videos and eyewitness accounts leave little reasonable doubt that a chemical weapons attack took place. The images out of Syria are "terrible" and "extremely distressing," said Alastair Hay of the University of Leeds. Though it's not possible from available footage to confirm exactly what chemical weapons were used, Hays said that the visible symptoms, such as nasal secretions, pronounced difficulty breathing and profuse sweating were consistent with organophosphoric exposure -- "and nerve agents are potent organophosphates."
Stefan Mogl, a chemical weapons expert with Spiez Laboratory of the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection, says that after viewing the videos he is left with little doubt: "The combination of symptoms indicates a nerve agent," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE (see interview here). Pupil constriction was recognizable on one child, for instance, which is among the first symptoms of nerve gas poisoning, Mogl explains. Then, a certain sequence of symptoms is observable, he continues, "the way their muscles cramp up, first in various parts of the body, then eventually the entire body starts twitching -- that's a so-called tremor." Such a thing would be very difficult to simulate, Mogl says. What's more, many of the victims were children, making it even less likely the scenario could be faked. And the number of people affected by the attack also seems hard to explain by anything other than by the use of chemical weapons.
Regime Likely Behind the Attacks
"I was in the hospital for hours," says pharmacist Abu Ahmad. "But we had practically nothing to treat the people with -- no more Atropin, which helped in previous situations. Those who don't die immediately are overcome by cramping, and most foam at the mouth. Their eyes roll back in their heads. The skin of the dead turns gray."
There were attempts to use the few remaining smuggling routes to bring Atropin to Arbeen from the outside world, but they were unsuccessful until early afternoon. Atropin is often used as an antidote to nerve agents like Sarin or VX, internationally condemned chemical weapons that the Syrian army is believed to have stored in one of the world's largest arsenals of such substances.
If eyewitnesses in Arbeen are to be believed, there is much to suggest that regime troops carried out the attack. Pharmacist Abu Ahmad, who is also an Arbeen councilman and volunteer at the emergency hospital, recalls that the first thing he heard on Wednesday morning was a "boom at the door." Outside, someone screamed: "Get yourselves to safety!" People panicked because they didn't know where to hide, he says.
Around 5 a.m. the mosques warned that there had been a gas attack, telling people to keep their windows and doors closed. "At the same time I was called to the hospital," Ahmad says. "The streets were full of smoke because people had lit fires everywhere in hopes of neutralizing the gas -- tires, wood, anything." When he arrived at the hospital, some 20 bodies had already been moved aside to make room for other patients. "Ten others were being treated, mainly children," he says.
Making a Mockery of the West
Witnesses told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the missiles began hitting a number of places northeast of Damascus around 3:45 a.m., with Harasta, Zamalka, Arbeen and smaller villages among them. The missiles were reportedly fired by twos, and one witness in Zamalka counted more than 20 hitting the city.
The cities of Muadhamija and Darayya, from which the army has been largely driven out, were reportedly among the hardest hit areas in the southwest. The attacks there are believed to have been launched around 5 a.m. from the army's 4th division posts.
It seems odd that, of all times, the attacks were launched just two days after United Nations chemical weapons experts had arrived to determine whether such weapons had been used in the country. But for Riad Kahwaji, head of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Beirut, it comes as no surprise. "With this timing the Syrian government is sending the opposition a clear signal: 'You're alone and we can do with you what we want.'"
The use of chemical weapons in the presence of the UN team also makes a mockery of the international community. Even so, Kahwaji doubts there will be a decisive response from the West. "The Syrian regime will remain immune to this as long as it is protected by the Russians on the UN Security Council," he says.
Furthermore, the UN inspectors have a weak mandate. "They are only allowed to visit locations chosen by the regime," Kahwaji told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And they are merely determining whether chemical weapons have been used -- but not who deployed them."