On the day after 50 children, women and men died in Syria, likely from the nerve agent sarin, U.S. President Donald Trump sounded a bit like he had realized for the first time what it means to be president.
"I have to say that the world is a mess. I inherited a mess," Trump said on Wednesday during a joint press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan. "I inherited a mess. We are going to fix it." It was almost as if he hadn't anticipated being forced to deal with problems as complicated as Syria. And perhaps he really hadn't.
Trump had just seen the most recent images of horror coming out of Syria -- in his office and on television. They showed children and adults in the small town of Khan Sheikhoun following an attack by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's air force. The victims lay twitching on the ground, some of them already dead with eyes gazing into the void.
Piles of corpses could be seen, tiny bodies piled one on top of the other, all life extinguished. They were horrific, haunting images that immediately spread around the world and many Western governments have no doubt that they are the product of a chemical weapons attack on the residents of Khan Sheikhoun by Assad.
The images apparently deeply shook the U.S. president. "When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal," Trump said, "that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line." It sounded as though he were already considering strikes in Syria.
Then, on Thursday night, they came. Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles, launched from two U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean, pounded the Shayrat airfield near Homs, a base used by both Syrian and Russian aircraft and the site from which the planes involved in the chemical attack took off. "It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons," Trump said in a statement from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
An Antagonistic Response in Moscow
While the move has received widespread support from Western leaders and Turkey, the response from Moscow has been predictably antagonistic. Though the Trump administration reportedly warned the Kremlin that the attack was imminent and no Russian planes or personnel came to harm in the strike, Moscow on Friday morning suspended a key deal aimed at minimizing the risks of in-flight incidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft flying sorties in Syrian airspace.
"President Putin considers the American strikes against Syria and aggression against a sovereign government in violation of the norms of international law and under a far-fetched pretext," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday. "This step by Washington is causing significant damage to Russian-American relations, which are already in a deplorable state."
It is an irony of history that Trump, of all people, has ordered a military strike against the Assad regime. Trump, the man who said during last year's election campaign that he intended to fight against Islamic State together with Russia and Assad and was opposed to "regime change." Trump, the man who warned his predecessor Barack Obama on Twitter at least 14 times to refrain from getting involved in Syria.
But after seeing images of the dead children of Khan Sheikhoun, Trump said: "My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much." His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who last week was still saying that getting rid of Assad was no longer a priority for the U.S., held up pictures of chemical attack victims during Wednesday's emergency meeting of the Security Council. "When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action," she said.
Is that the power of images? Are they so influential that they can, in the blink of a camera shutter, so dramatically change the course of a U.S. president's administration?
What happened in Khan Sheikhoun, after all, isn't totally surprising. After all, Assad's regime hasn't only murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians by way of barrel bombs, gunfire and torture. It has also repeatedly deployed chemical weapons, although it has been quite some time since such attacks were as horrific as the one that struck on Tuesday morning at 6:40 a.m. local time.
Dawn hadn't yet fully given way to day when two Su-22 jets belonging to the Syrian air force appeared in the skies above Khan Sheikhoun. Most people in town were still sleeping when four explosions -- three large ones and one smaller one -- rocked the town. One video shows two huge gray columns of dust and smoke over the city with a smaller white cloud a short distance away. It was this smaller cloud that quickly killed all the people in its surroundings.
It took valuable, deadly minutes until the residents understood that they had been attacked with chemical weapons. The first responders who showed up to the impact crater wearing gas masks were presented with an appalling sight: Some of the victims had tried to get away, having run into the street in their pajamas and suffocating there. Others lay lifeless at the doors to their homes. Some died in the few bomb shelters in the area.
The survivors struggled to breathe, their pupils narrowed and they were hardly able to see. They were the same symptoms seen following a chemical attack on several towns near Damascus in August 2013. Ground samples following those strikes showed that the nerve agent sarin had been deployed.
"Dozens upon dozens of unconscious, gasping patients arrived here, they were foaming at the mouth. Children, men, women, elderly. They died in front of our eyes, without visible injuries and we initially didn't know what to do," says Fadi Othman, one of the medics. "We handled the first 50 patients with our bare hands."
Five nurses and a doctor soon began experiencing the same symptoms as the victims. "It was only then that we put on disposable gloves," Othman continues. "Then we washed the patients with water and ordered them to undress and leave their contaminated clothing outside."
Soon, he said in a telephone interview, the entire courtyard in front of the entrance was full of the injured and the dying. "There were 400 or 500 people. We then asked the ambulances to take patients somewhere else. Inside, we have room for 50 patients at most and our underground hospital quickly filled with poisonous fumes from the clothes and skin of the patients."
The symptoms of a sarin attack can be treated with atropine, which blocks the poison's deadly effects on the nervous system. But atropine is difficult to find in the rebel-held areas of Syria, not least because in the days prior to the chemical attack, all important hospitals in Khan Sheikhoun and neighboring cities in the Idlib and Hama provinces were heavily damaged or destroyed by air strikes.
'Dying in Our Hands'
"The victims are simply dying in our hands," said a desperate medic in Khan Sheikhoun on the day of the attack. "We don't have enough atropine and the only way to save them is to transport them to Turkey. But many can't make it that far." At least 86 people had died by Thursday evening.
As if the chemical weapons attack wasn't bad enough, the clinic in Khan Sheikhoun was bombed as well, starting at midday on Tuesday. Because the hospital is underground, it was safe from most of the bombs and rockets, but not from the heavy bunker-buster bombs that have been repeatedly deployed by the Russian air force in recent months, most of them dropped by Su-34 bombers, which Assad's military does not possess.
According to eyewitnesses, two such Su-34s flew an attack at midday on Tuesday against the hospital in Khan Sheikhoun and on the neighboring civil defense headquarters. "We were in the operating room. I have never experienced such a massive attack," says Mohammed Diab, one of the doctors who was on duty at the time. Many pieces of equipment were destroyed, he says, and the medical staff had to dig their way out of the hospital.
Diab is concerned that the destruction of the clinic is just the first step in a larger plan. "First, all treatment facilities in the provinces of Idlib and Hama are going to be destroyed. Then, civilians will be attacked in their villages so that the fighters, who are from here, will have to focus on saving their families and will pull out.
That could be the strategy the regime is pursuing to take control of the two provinces, both of which are rebel strongholds. The fact that Assad has again used chemical weapons is likely intended as a chilling message to his people -- with the goal, perhaps, of getting as many people to flee as possible.
A Helping Hand in Moscow
As usual, though, the primary suspect has denied any responsibility. Back in 2013, after the first large sarin attack, Assad said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL: "We did not use chemical weapons. This is a misstatement." Using almost the same words, the Syrian leadership this week likewise rejected claims that Damascus was to blame, with assistance from the Russian Defense Ministry.
Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed that the Syrian pilots had destroyed a large rebel weapons depot on the outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun at midday on Tuesday. He went on to say that there was also a factory at the site of the depot for the production of chemical projectiles, which are then delivered to Islamic State in Syria.
He didn't, however, explain why dozens of victims had reportedly already died in the morning, several hours prior to the alleged strike on the weapons depot. Nor did he offer any explanation for why fighters in the northwestern province of Idlib would produce chemical weapons for their opponents in faraway Iraq and why the massive symptoms of poisoning were reported hours earlier that morning. Plus, the anti-Assad rebels, in contrast to IS, are not thought to have used chemical weapons thus far. A reporter from the Guardian, who traveled to the site of the air strikes mentioned by Konashenkov, said there were no signs of a weapons depot there, just two empty, half-destroyed grain silos.
The type of chemical used in the Tuesday attacks has not yet been definitively determined. But the World Health Organization (WHO) is among those that have described the symptoms of some patients as being consistent with nerve agents, of which sarin is one.
Should it ultimately be concluded that it was sarin, the Russian-Syrian narrative would become even more difficult to believe: The weaponized chemical is much more difficult to produce than chlorine gas and is extremely unstable. Usually, is it mixed shortly before deployment by combining two components. One of them is highly explosive and would have produced an enormous ball of fire had it been struck by a bomb. There was no such fireball to be seen on Tuesday morning. As such, the Russian claims seem to be nothing more than cover for Moscow's Syrian protectorate.
War Crimes Become the Norm
Following the sarin attack in 2013, there was no longer any doubt that Assad was prepared to use chemical weapons on his own people. It has been just as clear since then that the international community was prepared to accept it.
On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama said: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." Almost exactly one year later, around a thousand people in several towns on the outskirts of Damascus died from the effects of sarin. But instead of taking action, Obama wavered. First, he announced unilateral action and then he decided to request Congressional approval. Ultimately, the U.S. and Russia offered Assad a deal: There would be no attacks on the Assad regime as long as the country turned in all of its chemical weapons. Under the auspices of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), 1,300 tons of weaponized chemicals were destroyed.
Since then, war crimes have become normal in Syria, and they no longer generate much of an outcry. Attacks on schools, bombs dropped on hospitals, the starving of entire cities, systematic expulsions: The regime is able to do all that without the fear of repercussion.
Even before Khan Sheikhoun, there were doubts about whether Assad had really turned over his entire arsenal. In classified reports, OPCW officials have complained numerous times in the past that during their few inspections in Syria they had often detected unreported chemical weapons agents. In a television interview in May, a colonel who had deserted the army claimed that chemical weapons were being hidden at the Sayqal military air base.
OPCW together with medical organizations count, based on the evidence available, exactly 161 chemical weapons attacks between 2011 and 2016. Beginning with the spring of 2014, the regime began frequently dropping chlorine gas from helicopters. DER SPIEGEL provided evidence for the use of the gas in April 2014 and OPCW also confirmed the same in a later investigative report. It is impossible, of course, to simply ban chlorine, due to its ubiquity and myriad applications, but it is prohibited to use chlorine gas as a weapon.
"It's not as if we're just looking on without doing anything," says one leading expert at OPCW. "Behind closed doors, there is a serious dispute between the Russians and Syrians on one side and the Europeans and the Americans on the other. But in the end, all efforts fail when it comes down to the question: Who is going to curb this regime militarily? No one."
All efforts to hold Syria accountable in the UN Security Council are systematically vetoed by Russia. The draft resolution that France, Britain and the United States introduced on Wednesday in response to the Khan Sheikhoun attack was kept intentionally tepid as a result. It didn't demand any sanctions, and it didn't address the question of responsibility. It merely demanded that OPCW teams be provided with access to the flight plans and bases of the Syrian air force. But the effort ultimately failed as a result of Russian objections.
Russia's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Vladimir Safronkov, gave an angry speech full of assertions and finger-pointing with the aim of sowing doubts about Assad's guilt. It isn't particular surprising that Russia would deny the evidence. A chemical weapons attack by the regime doesn't just cast a bad light on Russia's Syrian involvement -- it could also imperil Vladimir Putin's diplomatic successes. That may explain the equivocal statement made by Putin's spokesman on Thursday, when he said that Russia's support for Assad is "not unconditional."
It took years before the United States and Turkey closed ranks with Russia in agreeing that Assad's ouster should not be a precondition for a peace agreement in Syria. When Russian soldiers helped Assad recapture eastern Aleppo, it demonstrated that Moscow could effectively deploy both its military and diplomatic weapons as Washington and the West simply looked on. Until this week, it appeared Putin would prevail in his risky game.
Now it appears to be Assad, of all people, who has thwarted these plans. The evidence that the regime is behind the chemical weapons attack is overwhelming. In addition to the videos and photos of the victims, there has also been consistent testimony from survivors as well as the pending analysis of soil samples. But there's also another piece of evidence: a recording of radio communications between the Syrian pilots and the control tower.
For self-defense purposes, rebels in numerous places have been eavesdropping on the radio communications between Syrian regime pilots and their bases since 2013. By doing so, they can determine which airplanes are taking off when and from which airport, what is being said to the pilots and the flightpaths they will be following. The rebels are then able to warn hospitals and other preferred regime targets. On Tuesday morning, a rebel post was listening in on the radio communications between operation command and the pilots as the two Sukhoi jets took off from the Shayrat air base near Homs. "At 6:26 a.m., the tower contacted the commanding pilot," the surveillance officer on duty at the time told DER SPIEGEL, "with the identification of Quds 1. Normally, the commander briefly asks the pilot if he is ready and then delivers the deployment order. But this time, the tower asked a second time if all conditions had truly been met and requested the pilot to double-check."
"I've been eavesdropping for four years," the man monitoring the radio communications said. "I know the routine procedures. But this was not routine." He was able to record part of the radio communications and they have been obtained by DER SPIEGEL. He also issued an alarm, but unfortunately the wrong one. He alerted rebels at the front lines, where Assad's troops have been under pressure for weeks, but the deadly cargo was ultimately dropped over Khan Sheikhoun.
The attack wasn't a complete surprise. On March 30, another unusual incident had taken place in the town of Latamne. It wasn't chlorine gas that got dropped this time -- it was another toxic substance. There were no deaths, but people did get injured, and they had symptoms characteristic of those shown by individuals who have been exposed to the nerve agent sarin. Interestingly, though, the pilot in that attack -- and the rebels reported this on March 30 -- had also been identified as "Quds 1."
A Test for the World
The few experts who took notice of the attack wondered why Assad's military leadership would use sarin, whose traces in the body and in the ground can be detected and proven for a longer period of time than chlorine gas. Five days later they got their answer. It was likely a test to see how the world would react. But there was none.
Eighty-six people had to die first in the attack on Khan Sheikh before the world took note. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said an attack like this "could not go without consequences. No war criminal can be allowed to feel safe." But it is precisely the lack of consequences that has allowed this war to continue for as long as it has.
Now that Trump has conducted missile strikes on Syria, it is unclear what might happen next. His choice to bomb an Assad air base using Tomahawk missiles is certainly the least risky of the many options he had -- and still has -- at his disposal. But if he were to move forward and implement a no-fly zone or a protection zone for civilians, it's very unlikely this could be achieved from the air alone. It would almost certainly require a significant number of ground troops and would mean a massive military and logistics operation.
During his election campaign, Trump spoke out clearly against such plans and warned of "World War III." Even with a limited military strike, there is a threat of a confrontation between the U.S. Air Force and Russian jets and anti-aircraft batteries. Four years ago, when Trump warned so emphatically against an intervention, the conditions for doing so were considerably more favorable than they are today. Russia wasn't yet active in Syria and there was still a large number of moderate rebels. For many observers, it is surprising, but also a bit scary how quickly Trump has now changed his mind.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag also said: "We now have no doubt that the Assad regime used chemical weapons." Many survivors of the chemical weapons attack are now being treated in Turkish hospitals -- more than 50 patients, according to the Health Ministry. The country's emergency relief agency set up tents at the border where victims are being disinfected and provided with treatment.
'There is Much to Suggest Sarin'
Five-year-old Obai Alsafar is being treated at the university hospital in the city of Antakya in southeast Turkey. An oxygen mask covers his mouth and nose. His eyes are glazed over, but he can talk. Obai says that he was sleeping when the jets attacked. Once the bombs struck, he ran outside with his parents. He says he suddenly grew dizzy. His muscles began cramping, at which point he fell to the ground and passed out. An ambulance drove him to the border.
Doctors in Antakya say Obai was in very bad condition when he arrived at the hospital and that he was foaming at the mouth. "There is much to suggest sarin," says one of the doctors, "but we can't say with absolute certainty." The boy is now recovering and his blood sample is on its way to Ankara -- evidence of the cruelty of the Syrian regime that can be used in court.
Autopsies of the bodies of three people who died in the attack have been carried out by Turkish doctors and representatives of OPCW in the city of Adana in Turkey. Prosecutors have said that traces of chemical weapons were found. The plan is for all samples to be sent later to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The court may one day hold Bashar Assad accountable. Or not.
By Christian Esch, Maximilian Popp, Jan Puhl, Christoph Reuter, Mathieu von Rohr, Christoph Scheuermann and Christoph Sydow