EU calls for international response after suspected chemical attack in Syria

The EU said evidence points to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces against rebel-held Douma. The US, UK, France, Turkey and Pope Francis also spoke out against the alleged attack.

The EU, US, UK, France, Turkey and Pope Francis spoke out on Sunday against the attack on the rebel-held area near the Syrian capital, Damascus. 

Medical relief organization Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the civil defense service said on Sunday that 49 people had died in the attack late on Saturday in the town of Douma.

"It is a matter of grave concern that chemical weapons continue to be used, especially on civilians," the EU said in a statement. "The European Union condemns in the strongest terms the use of chemical weapons and calls for an immediate response by the international community."

The EU called on Russia and Iran to use their influence with Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent further attacks. 

Explosions over Douma, eastern Ghouta

International censure 

US President Donald Trump accused Russia and Iran over the alleged attacks: "Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay," he said via Twitter.  

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Sunday the reports were "deeply disturbing," and warned that Russia must not try to block an international investigation. Johnson claimed the Syrian forces had used poison gas in at least four attacks since 2014.

The UK mission to the United Nations said on Sunday the Security Council was likely to meet on Monday afternoon over the attack, at the request of nine members: "UK, France, US, Poland, Netherlands, Sweden, Kuwait, Peru and Cote d’Ivoire have called an emergency meeting of #UNSC to discuss reports of chemical weapons attack in #Syria. Meeting expected on Monday."

France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called for the UN Security Council to meet quickly to examine the situation. He added that Paris would assume all its responsibilities in the fight against chemical weapons. 

President Emmanuel Macron said he "strongly condemned the chemical attacks" against civilians in Douma during a call US President Donald Trump on Sunday. Both leaders were said to have agreed to coordinate "a strong, joint response" to what they considered a "horrific" attack and concluded that the Syrian regime "must be held accountable for its continued human rights abuses."

Assault on eastern Ghouta, Syria in pictures

Enclave under siege

More than 1,500 people have been killed since Syrian government troops backed by Russia launched a ferocious attack on eastern Ghouta on February 18. Airstrikes have reduced much of the area near Damascus to ruins. According to the UN, there were an estimated 400,000 people trapped inside the besieged enclave without access to food and water when the offensive began.

Assault on eastern Ghouta, Syria in pictures

'Hell on earth'

The town of Douma, with its 200,000 residents, is now the only remaining Ghouta pocket still under rebel control. The full recapture of eastern Ghouta would mark a significant victory for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Referring to the month-long assault on the enclave, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres demanded "this hell on earth" be stopped immediately.

Assault on eastern Ghouta, Syria in pictures

Reports of chemical attack

According to activists and doctors in the region, several people have suffered symptoms consistent with those triggered by a chlorine gas attack and had to be treated in hospital. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned the Syrian regime that the use of chemical weapons will result in French retaliation, but the Syrian government claims it has never used this kind of munition.

Assault on eastern Ghouta, Syria in pictures

300,000 killed

A man and child look at the remains of a missile in Douma, the largest in eastern Ghouta. More than 300,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011, when the government cracked down on protesters who were calling for the release of political prisoners and for President Assad to step down.

Assault on eastern Ghouta, Syria in pictures

'Rapid spread of malnutrition'

Activists say people in Douma have little food or water. Marten Mylius, the emergency relief coordinator for CARE in the Middle East, told DW that "after the tunnels were destroyed and the crossings closed, the price of basic foods skyrocketed. One kilo of rice now costs $4.50 (€3.66). A lot of people cannot afford that anymore. In other words, we are witnessing a rapid spread of malnutrition."

Assault on eastern Ghouta, Syria in pictures

At the mercy of the regime

Aid access to eastern Ghouta is difficult because there is no direct route from neighboring countries. "In Idlib, for can get in directly from the Turkish border. You can wait with supplies at the border and then bring in the convoy. It is much more difficult in eastern Ghouta," Mylius told DW.

Turkey also condemned the attack. A statement from Turkey's foreign ministry said there was a "strong suspicion" the Assad regime was responsible for it. "We strongly condemn the attack and we have the strong suspicion it was carried out by the regime, whose record on the use of chemical weapons is known by the international community," the ministry in Ankara said. 

Pope Francis on Sunday joined the international censure: "Nothing, nothing can justify the use of such devices of extermination against defenseless people and populations," the pope told thousands of people gathered in St Peter's Square.

Saudi Arabia called on the international community to "shoulder its responsibility toward protecting civilians in Syria," according to Turkey's Anadolu Agency which cited the Saudi SPA news agency.

Syria's allies react 

Russia warned the US against carrying out a "military intervention on fabricated pretexts" in Syria. The foreign ministry said that "a military intervention under far-fetched and fabricated pretexts in Syria, where there are Russian soldiers at the request of the legitimate Syrian government, is absolutely unacceptable and could have the most dire consequences." 

Iran's foreign ministry said the reports were an excuse for military action against Damascus, the IRNA news agency reported. Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi was quoted as saying: "Such claims and accusations by the Americans and some western countries are an indication of a new plot and excuse for military action against the Syrian government and nation."

Syria denies ever using chemical weapons during the seven-year war, and says it eliminated its chemical arsenal under a 2013 agreement brokered by the US and Russia.

Syria's Douma struggles to survive

Ravaged by war

The besieged rebel-held city of Douma in Syria is located in the east, around 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside the capital Damascus.

Syria's Douma struggles to survive

War games

Over the last six years, countless civilian neighborhoods have been completely or partially destroyed by Russian and Syrian-led airstrikes. Children have become used to living in these bombed-out areas and have turned the rubble into a playground.

Syria's Douma struggles to survive

Going underground

Most schools and other public institutions were moved underground because of the bombing and the airstrikes on the city. Education is crucial for this war generation as the country's future hinges on them.

Syria's Douma struggles to survive

No respite

Most of the time, Douma is being hit by regime and Russian airstrikes. In this image, a man was checking the damage to his house while the warplanes were still flying overhead.

Syria's Douma struggles to survive

Back to basics

The bread baking machines have ground to a halt due to a lack of flour and fuel to keep them running. Making bread by hand is an old tradition in Syria and some Douma residents have opened up shops to bake and sell bread. One piece of bread costs 75 Syrian Pounds (30 euro cents).

Syria's Douma struggles to survive

Standing tall

Abeer* lost her right leg in a bomb explosion in front of near her home while she was with her cousin Hassan* who was killed by the same bomb. Abeer is just one of thousands of injured children. Despite her loss, she's determined to live like anyone else, playing with friends and going outside. *Names have been changed.

Syria's Douma struggles to survive

Darkness at the edge of town

At night Douma is plunged into darkness. There has been little to no electricity since the siege began. Locals ration the use of their generators for their shops and homes.

Syria's Douma struggles to survive

Keeping up appearances

Ironing clothes has not exactly been a priority for people in Douma but whenever possible and with the help of an old iron heated over a coal fire, mundane tasks help to regain a sense of normality.

jcg, kw/se (AP, AFP, Reuters) 

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