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What we know about the chemical weapon attack in Syria

April 4, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
An apparent chemical weapons attack killed dozens in Syria. The U.S. blamed the Syrian government, while witnesses and activists said the toxic substance was delivered by Syrian and Russian jets. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports and Judy Woodruff talks to Andrew Tabler of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the apparent chemical weapons attack this morning in Northwest Syria.

The casualty counts ranged from 58 dead to over 100. Either way, it was one of the worst such attacks in the country’s six-year civil war. It hit the town of Khan Shaykhu in Idlib province, which is largely controlled by rebel forces fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner begins our coverage.

And a warning: Some images in this report are disturbing.

MARGARET WARNER: The scene was horrific and chaotic, medics rushing to help victims, many of them children , while others struggled to make sense of what happened.

CHILD (through interpreter): I was asleep when the warplane hit us. I went outside with my dad, but my head started hurting. I fell asleep and woke up to find myself here.

MARGARET WARNER: Witnesses and some activists said the toxic substance was delivered by Syrian and Russian jets in an attack in the rebel-held region. Damascus and Moscow denied involvement. The results were plain enough.

FIRAS AL-JUNDI, Syrian Opposition Health Official (through interpreter): This morning, I was in a field hospital in Idlib. The symptoms were clear on the patients: suffocation, respiratory failure, foaming at the mouth, loss of consciousness, convulsions and paralysis.

MARGARET WARNER: The worst attack of this war took place back in 2013 in a Damascus suburb, killing hundreds of civilians. The U.N. said the nerve agent sarin was used.

In 2012, President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria a red line that could trigger U.S. airstrikes, but after the 2013 attack, then-Secretary of State John Kerry instead struck a deal with Russia for Syria to surrender its chemical arsenal.

International inspectors said Damascus complied. Today’s strike comes on the eve of a conference in Brussels about Syria’s future and it drew sharp condemnation.

FEDERICA MOGHERINI, Foreign Policy Chief, European Union: Chemical weapons is the worst of the war crimes, and whoever is responsible for that must be held accountable.

MARGARET WARNER: For his part, President Trump said in a statement: “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”

The White House spokesman wouldn’t discuss a possible U.S. response, but he did say ousting the Assad regime is no longer — quote — “a fundamental option.”

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting for tomorrow.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, bear — quote — “great moral responsibility” for those killed in today’s attack, and he called on those nations to restrain the Assad regime.

For more on this, I’m joined by Andrew Tabler. He’s a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It’s a think tank. And Susannah Sirkin, she’s the director of international policy and partnerships and senior adviser at Physicians for Human Rights. It’s a group that specializes in documenting human rights abuses and atrocities.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

Susannah Sirkin, I’m going to start with you.

Is there more you can tell us at this point about what happened in this attack?

SUSANNAH SIRKIN, Physicians for Human Rights: Well, today, at Physicians for Human Rights, we have had physicians view dozens of photographs and video clips to try to understand what exactly has happened.

And we have had contact with a number of doctors on the front lines trying desperately to treat those who are injured, as well as to deal with those who apparently have been killed as a result of this attack.

We know that the medical system, such as it is, which has already been devastated by more than almost seven years of war, has been responding as best it can, but it is really, as far as we can tell, a situation of chaos and desperation.

These kinds of weapons are terrifying inherently because they have no smell, they have no — they aren’t seen. They have no taste. And they are detonated essentially in a way that is invisible, and then, all of a sudden, people succumb. It’s severely painful.

Many people who are attacked in this way result — end up having nerve damage, as well as muscular constriction, and in the end, they can’t breathe at all. So, they are rushed to the hospital, and it’s really quite desperate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I know that work is still being done to try to determine what kind of chemical.

Andrew Tabler, is it clear or even close to being known at this point who exactly was behind this?

ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, it was behind the opposition’s lines, so it seemed to be delivered from the air.

So then that begs the question, well, who has air capabilities? The opposition doesn’t. So it would be the Assad regime or the Russians. And in that case, I think that most of the initial indicators are pointing at the Assad regime.

And that then will, of course, focus attention on the Assad regime’s activities in the last few days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as we just heard in Margaret Warner’s report, though, the international inspectors said just a few years ago that they had determined that the Assad regime had given up at least some of their chemical weapons.

ANDREW TABLER: That’s right.

But — but, at the end of the process, there was a concern about Syria’s declaration. So, a couple things to look for in the coming days. If they find that it was sarin that was used, which it initially seems from the symptoms that it was, that that begs the question, well, where did it come from?

If all of the stockpiles were destroyed, how did this sarin enter — if it’s found to be chlorine, which is an industrial chemical, would they have been using for years, then it’s another matter.

But the Syrian regime has been using — has been found to have carried out chemical attacks in Syria multiple times since the chemical weapons deal. This is just one of the most egregious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Susannah Sirkin, is it — from the symptoms, is it possible to determine what the chemical agent was?

SUSANNAH SIRKIN: Well, so far, from everything that Physicians for Human Rights has seen and observed through these videos and photographs, all of the symptoms that are known to be associated with the use of sarin, which is a banned nerve agent, have been seen, foaming at the mouth, fluid coming from the nostrils, severe respiratory distress, muscular constriction, seizures and so forth.

So, while we cannot say definitively that sarin was used, everything is pointing to a nerve agent and very likely sarin, because we know that sarin has been used before by the Assad regime.

What would need to happen next and what we’re calling for is an immediate independent international investigation on the ground to collect samples, which would involve collecting blood, urine, and clothing and soil samples, to have a definitive conclusion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And beyond that, Andrew Tabler, as you said, the signs point to the Assad regime. How does anyone involved in this get to the bottom of determining definitively whether it was the Assad regime?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, there is a joint investigative mechanism that was put in place by the United Nations years ago to investigate these attacks.

And they have found that the Assad regime has used chemical agents on multiple occasions. I anticipate that that would be used. The question is, is it enough? And in the past…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean is this investigation enough?

ANDREW TABLER: Yes, is this investigation enough? Is this method enough?

And I think that — in the past, activists and others have brought out samples that have helped investigators looking into these matters, determine what was used, and then determine on a course of action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just staying with you, Andrew Tabler, today, we heard an opposition leader say that what happened, in his words, essentially a direct consequence of what the Trump administration has been saying in the past few days, that it was going to be that they were prepared to live with the Assad regime.

On the other hand, you have President Trump in his statement blaming it on the failed policies of President Obama.

ANDREW TABLER: Well, in the balance, first of all, the Assad regime has been using chemical agents since 2013.

So, overall, I think, to be fair, the Trump administration was dealt a pretty terrible Syria hand by the previous administration. Now, I think the real question here is, what do you do going forward? And tomorrow we’re going to know from action at the U.N.

But we’re going to have to look at the fact that, while we hope the Syrian war is winding down, it doesn’t seem to be when we have attacks like this, and that the political settlement that we all want in Syria, the whole country political settlement, seems far off.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there. What a horrific event that’s taken place.

Andrew Tabler, Susannah Sirkin, we thank you both.

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