Assad's Cold Calculation: The Poison Gas War on the Syrian People
Evidence clearly suggests that Syria's president has deployed chemical weapons. The latest poison gas attack should set aside once and for all any reservations about military intervention. The credibility of Western countries is on the line.
Why exactly, Syrian President Bashar Assad asked in mid-June, were so few people killed in the chemical weapons attacks he had allegedly ordered? The United States government had cited a death toll of 100 to 150 a few days earlier. But it would be "illogical," Assad pointed out, to kill such a small number of enemies with chemical weapons, since they could easily be killed "using conventional weapons" instead.
Nevertheless, weeks earlier, a well-known poison gas expert voiced his suspicion in an off-the-record conversation that minimal use of chemical weapons was seen as the best way get the West used to its deployment -- triggering an ongoing international dispute over whether nerve gas was being used at all. The expert said that, at some point, "the commotion over the use of chemical weapons per se" would "have dissipated."
"Assad has been extremely calculating with the use of force," former US Army intelligence officer Joseph Holliday wrote in a study for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. "He's introducing chemical weapons gradually."
Eventually, according to the plan, he would then follow this up with a major attack and continue until he felt strong enough to follow in the footsteps of other dictators, including his father, who had no scruples about mowing down opposition strongholds. During the massacre in Hama, for example, up to 10,000 people reportedly died under the orders of Assad's father. Another precursor was former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose troops murdered 5,000 Kurds in a poison gas attack on the city of Halabja 25 years ago.
Has the West become so accustomed to daily violence that Assad can now expect Western politicians to look the other way when small children die after suffering muscle convulsions, tears shooting from their eyes and foam from their noses and mouths?
Can we look away when we see the small girl from a Damascus suburb, in a T-shirt embroidered with glittering thread, captured in an image so heartbreaking SPIEGEL decided to show only a suggestion of the brutality of her death on its cover?
The real question is this: Has Assad's plan worked? Was this the major strike, the prelude to an even more brutal war that experts had warned would happen -- and that the world, already accustomed to so many images of violence from Syria, will watch with pity but ultimately not do anything about? Or will something change, and Aug. 21 go down in history as the moment when a new level of brutality forced the world to react? Even President Barack Obama, who has thus far avoided any military response to the cruelty of the Assad regime, is now considering the use of cruise missiles against Damascus.
A Crime Against Humanity
What happened last Wednesday in the suburbs of Damascus doesn't just add another 1,000 dead to the more than 100,000 victims to date. It was mass murder, a crime against humanity that is outlawed for good reason. Poison gas doesn't just target soldiers, it affects civilians, including women and children -- giving them no opportunity to defend themselves or flee, instead quietly and indiscriminately killing everyone.
The first reports of the morning, about hundreds of dead and injured in various suburbs to the south and east of Damascus, were followed by videos of gruesome scenes: corridors and rooms full of half-naked and outwardly unharmed bodies, people trembling and uncontrollably salivating and gasping for breath. Doctors and volunteers were shown wading through water among the dead and pouring water on newly admitted victims, both to wash the poison off them and avoid falling victim to it themselves.
At about 3 a.m., rockets fell to the ground in several parts of the East Ghouta district east of Damascus, as well as in Darayya and Muadhamiya in the southwestern part of the city. Witnesses later said that there were no massive explosions.
One of the rockets, which struck on the edge of the town of Zamalka, left no crater and, instead, remained stuck in the ground largely intact. It was the same type of rocket that had been used in earlier presumed chemical attacks, but not an internationally known model. Rescuers later pulled only dead bodies out of undamaged houses near the impact site. There, barns contained dead chickens and the gardens, dead sheep.
A doctor from Irbin and a volunteer from Douma said that it wasn't until the mosque loudspeakers repeatedly announced warnings of a gas attack and residents were told to keep all doors and windows closed that they realized what had happened. "I was familiar with the patients' symptoms from earlier attacks," doctor Abu Akram recounts from the emergency hospital in Irbin. "People are externally unharmed, but they are foaming at the mouth and trembling, and their heartbeat becomes weaker and weaker. It was only a few victims in the past, but this time it was hundreds. They were lying on the floors of the treatment rooms, in the corridors, everywhere, and more and more kept coming. One after another, the patients around us lost consciousness. We injected atropine," a drug used to counteract the effects of Sarin nerve gas, "until we ran out. Then we used hydrocortisone, and finally we dripped onion juice. Most were revived, but 73 people died."
'We Lied to the Ambulance Drivers'
They had wanted to document and photograph every dead person, says Akram, "but we kept getting new patients on Wednesday, while family members were simultaneously picking up the dead." By Thursday evening the hospital in Irbin had nevertheless compiled a file of all the bodies, 41 identified and 32 unidentified, including many children. The task was complicated by the fact that most of the victims came from the nearby town of Zamalka but had been taken to Irbin, where the hospital is better equipped. The bodies were also later taken to Zamalka and laid out in front of the central mosque, so that family members could identify the dead.
Under Islamic religious law, the dead must be buried within a day, but it is almost impossible to simply leave bodies lying in the mid-August heat without electricity and cooling anyways. Many of the dead had already been buried by Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, often in mass graves.
The volunteer from Douma had already taken 13 wounded and dead victims to the hospital in his pickup truck when he too collapsed. "I was wearing a gas mask, but I didn't know that skin contact can also be deadly. Men wearing gloves tore off my clothes, hosed the others and me down with the hose from a fire truck, and gave us atropine injections. I was unconscious for an hour. When I came around, at about six, people were still being brought in. Many were completely disoriented and didn't know where or who they were. A little boy kept screaming at his mother: 'You are not my mother.' It was very eerie." According to the volunteer, about 150 residents were killed.
"We lied to the ambulance drivers," says the distraught logistics expert at the hospital in Muadhamiya. "They were afraid and had no gas masks, but we told them that it was already safe to drive to the site. What else could we have done? There were seven of them. Three came back." There hadn't yet been a chemical attack in the small town southwest of Damascus. The hospital was prepared, but not for such a large casualty count. "Besides, we couldn't reach the houses, because the artillery bombing began at about 7 a.m., and snipers were shooting at every car near the front. For a while we heard the sounds of people from a distance, but then it became silent."
Soaring Death Toll
It is still unclear how many people died in the attack. According to the opposition in exile, the figure is 1,300. By Friday morning, about 300 of the dead had been identified, but information from several villages was still missing. Another 200 victims, mostly children, have not yet been identified. In several places near the front line, dozens of bodies were reportedly still lying in their houses.
Experts say it's still unclear exactly which chemical agent was used, but the symptoms resembled those from earlier attacks. After those attacks, soil and body samples tested in French and British laboratories came out positive for sarin.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles