As many as 72 people, including 20 children, were killed in an airstrike on Tuesday that is said to have released toxic gases in Khan Sheikhun, a town in Idlib province of Syria held by rebel forces opposed to the undemocratic regime of President Bashar Al Assad. This is the fourth time in the six-year Syrian conflict, which has claimed about 3,00,000 lives and displaced as many, that chemical weapons have been used by the regime against the rebels.
How do we know that nerve gas was used?
Survivors of Tuesday’s attack were treated for suffocation, convulsions, pinpoint pupils, and rapid pulses — symptoms of having inhaled noxious gases, doctors who treated 160 of the wounded told AFP. Videos and photographs circulated by people from the region of the dead show stiff bodies of children with no visible injuries, unlike in explosion deaths. Autopsies conducted on the bodies of victims later confirmed the use of the deadly nerve gas Sarin.
Russia claims Syria did not use chemical weapons
The regime’s foremost ally Russia, said there had indeed been a Syrian air strike in Khan Sheikhun but that the a rebel warehouse making bombs using toxic material had been hit, discharging poisonous gases into the air. A chemical weapons expert, Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, rubbished this alibi, telling the BBC the idea that a nerve gas like Sarin could spread after a weapons manufacturing depot had been hit was not sustainable.
Syria has gassed its citizens before
In 2013, the Bashar Al Assad regime had used the deadly nerve gas, Sarin, on the outskirts of Damascus, an attack in which as many as 1,429 people were killed, according to a US intelligence report. There was widespread condemnation and major diplomatic efforts as the world for the first time intervened in the Syrian conflict. Syria was forced to give up its chemical weapons arsenal and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 to avoid military action by Western powers. But that didn’t stop Syria. There were two attacks, in which Chlorine was used, between 2014 and 2015, a United Nations-led probe said.
Will action be taken against Syria?
United States’ President Donald Trump has said that Assad has crossed many lines with this attack, while Vice-President Mike Pence when asked if the US would intervene to overthrow the regime, said all options are on the table. Will it be another invasion like Iraq? Meanwhile, Britain, France and the US proposed a resolution to have an investigation by Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigate the attack. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the UN’s chemical arms watchdog too have launched investigations to ascertain whether Syria used toxic gases to attack its people.
What is the history of the conflict?
Eleven years after President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000, peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations began in Syria in March 2011 in the backdrop of similar protests in West Asian countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, known as the Arab Spring. Assad crushed the demonstrations with brute force, which led to protests demanding his resignation. It quickly escalated as opposition supporters resorted to an armed struggle. By June 2012, 18 months later, the Red Cross had declared that Syria was in a state of civil war.
Shia government versus divided opposition
While the government headed by Assad, who belongs to the Alawite minority community of the Shia sect, managed to keep the Shias on the government side, the Opposition, which was composed mainly of Sunni groups and some Kurds, split into several hundred rebel outfits, as sectarian differences cropped up. Sectarianism cropped up as a major problem in West Asia since the US-led war on Iraq in 2003, which too was a secular country until then under Saddam Hussein.
International support based on sectarian divide
There have been long-standing animosities between Shia and Sunni majority countries in West Asia. So they naturally sided with the Syrian government or the opposition groups according to their sect’s interests. Rich Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, apart from Turkey, supported different rebel groups, while Shiite Iran and the Hezbollah in Lebanon backed the Assad regime.
Secular regime versus Islamist rebels
To gain the support of rich Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebel outfits began reorienting themselves as increasingly Islamist and jihadist by early 2012, giving shape to Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Nusra Front. The Syrian forces stuck together behind President Assad and the narrative became one of secular versus Islamist. This environment also led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State also known as ISIS, which had begun as an offshoot of the Al Qaeda in Iraq. ISIS made good of the conflict to capture several regions of Syria and Iraq, which it has declared as the Caliphate.
Syria becomes proxy battleground for US, Russia
Fearing the rise of the Islamic State, which was born as a result of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, the United States began pushing for a change of regime but stayed shy of getting directly involved, instead preferring to arm rebel groups. Sensing an opportunity to reclaim its spot as a major world power, Russia stepped in to the conflict in September 2015, launching air strikes to target terrorists like ISIS and help the Bashar Al Assad regime. Russia is accused of targeting US-military backed rebel installations, and it has led to a proxy war between Moscow and Washington. Now with the United States launching direct air strikes on Syria, the proxy war has been escalated.
Lives claimed, people displaced
More than 3,00,000 people have been killed in the six years that the Syrian conflict has lasted, according to a UK-based monitoring group names Syrian Observatory for Human rights. Other groups quote higher figures closer to 500,000. Ten times that number of people have fled the war-torn country to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Of the 5 million, 10 per cent of them have been relocated in European countries. The mass migration sowed political discord in Europe, particularly in the Britain, France, Germany, and is said to have been one of the key nudge-points that led to Britons choosing to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum.