The images were harrowing. The chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government on the rebel-held city of Khan Sheikhoun, in Idlib province, on Tuesday last week, killed at least 86 people, including 27 children. The photos of small children—among them toddlers and mere babies—huddled together, or in a relative’s arms, or half-covered by a blanket—show all of them with their mouths open, indicating that they died as a result of asphyxiation, doctors on the ground said.
Another image, less graphic but no less horrifying, showed a 29-year-old father, Abdul-Hamid Alyousef, weeping as he held his nine-month-old twin babies, pressed close to his chest, after they succumbed to the attack. Their names were Aya and Ahmed, The Independent reported. “Say goodbye, baby, say goodbye,” the grief-struck father said, stroking their hair. Eventually he took them to a mass grave, where 20 other members of his family, who also perished in the attack, were being buried.
The Independent’s report also noted that another member of the Alyousef family, Aya Fadl, saw her relatives and some of her students among the dead piled on a pick-up truck. “Ammar, Aya, Mohammed, Ahmad, I love you my birds. Really they were like birds. Aunt Sana, Uncle Yasser, Abdul-Kareem, please hear me,” Fadl said. “I saw them. They were dead. All are dead now.”
A team from Doctors Without Borders, who examined some of the victims, reported that the symptoms they exhibited included convulsions, constricted pupils, and vomiting; the likely cause was exposure to a toxic nerve agent such as sarin.
The Trump administration has seized upon the chemical attack as rationale for launching a military strike against Shayrat airfield, where the Syrian government aircraft which bombed Khan Sheikhoun departed from. A total of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from two destroyers; the runways were left intact, but US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the “measured response resulted in the damage or destruction of fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities, and 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft.” He added: “The Syrian government has lost the ability to refuel or rearm aircraft at Shayrat airfield and at this point, use of the runway is of idle military interest.”
Perhaps, at another time, the inconsistency of US government policy on the Syrian civil war can be discussed; in 2013, when hundreds died in a sarin attack carried out by the Bashar al-Assad government, the Republican majority in Congress rejected US President Barack Obama’s request to launch a military strike. In 2017, the same majority aligned itself with Donald Trump’s decision to strike—even though it had not been consulted prior to the attack. Key members of the leadership were told only as the strike was ongoing.
This time, we turn our thoughts to the victims. By one count, the population living in Syria has been reduced from some 20 million to about 12 million; millions have died in the civil war, and millions more have fled the country’s borders. Of those who stay, the Syrians who live in rebel-held areas, suffer hellish conditions: violence from both the government and from Isis, destruction everywhere, death always constant.
Assad, with the active support of the Russian government, has demonstrated that he will do anything to keep himself—a second-generation dictator—in power. (As the statement from Mattis clearly showed, the United States has the ability to severely limit Assad’s power to inflict harm on his own people.)
The images of children struck dead by the very chemical weapons already outlawed, and which Assad committed to destroying, yields more proof, if more proof were needed, of the helplessness of the Syrian people. It may be no exaggeration to say that, as the civil war rages on, they are only waiting for one form of death or another. Like the children who perished in Khan Sheikhoun, they are asphyxiating.
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