Tensions – and the attendant risk of an all-out war – are rising over the chemical attack that took place last Saturday on the hapless civilians sheltering in the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma.
At least 60 people – including many women and children – were killed, and an estimated 500 others were injured in the attack that left people frothing at the mouth and suffocating with dilated and constricting pupils, corneal burns, central cyanosis and a chlorine-like odor – the symptoms of sarin gas poisoning.
The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement from Geneva demanding “unhindered access to the area to provide care to those affected, to assess the health impacts and to deliver a comprehensive public health response.”
United Nations aid organizations have no access to most of the area in Eastern Ghouta, including Douma.
Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – not necessarily known for jumping into the fray when humanitarian issues are at stake – warned that the world must now react to the use of chemical weapons – or risk worse. “After decades when we thought we had successfully outlawed the use of chemical and biological weapons, the world is sitting idly by while their use is becoming normalized in Syria,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said. “This collective shrug to yet another possible use of one of the most ghastly weapons ever devised by man is incredibly dangerous.”
Late into the night on Tuesday, the UN Security Council met to vote on opposing resolutions dealing with the issue of investigations into the chemical weapons use in Douma, and in Syria altogether, submitted by Western nations led by the United States, and by Russia on behalf of Syria.
The U.S. resolution was supported by 12 members, but China abstained and Russia opposed, with Bolivia’s support. Since China and Russia are two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, that ended the possibility of passage for the Western resolution, which would have given authority to an investigative body to also assign responsibility and ultimately blame for the attacks.
The Russian resolution was considerably watered down, inviting an investigation but leaving the question of blame for the chemical warfare up to the Security Council itself. That, too, failed to pass. “Weapons of mass destruction pose an existential threat to all us,” French Ambassador François Delattre said bluntly.
Moreover, UK Ambassador Karen Pierce took the question further following the vote. Given Russia’s direct involvement in supporting the Syrian regime and its consistent refusal to allow resolutions to pass that would have held Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible for events under his leadership, Pierce said, “Russia’s credibility as a member of the Council is now in question. We will not stand idly by and watch Russia continue to undermine global norms which have ensured all our security, including Russia’s, for decades. As a [permanent Council] member, the United Kingdom will stand up for international peace and security. It is our moral duty.”
On Monday, Moscow warned Washington to consider the consequences of a strike on Syria.
“Russia has warned U.S. representatives, both publicly and via corresponding channels, including military ones, about serious consequences that might follow possible strikes [on Syria] if Russian citizens are hurt in such strikes, accidentally or not,” the Kremlin said in a statement Tuesday, according to the TASS news service.
Likewise, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) confirmed to reporters Wednesday that it has taken steps to warn airline companies about the possibility of military action in the eastern Mediterranean.
“We informed EASA member states and Eurocontrol Network Manager yesterday that due to the possible launch of air strikes into Syria with air-to-ground and/or cruise missiles within the next 72 hours as of yesterday, and the possibility of intermittent disruption of radio navigation equipment, due consideration needs to be taken when planning flight operations in the Eastern Mediterranean / Nicosia Flight Information Region area,” EASA said in a statement.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy has said it is deploying a strike group from Norfolk, Virginia to the Middle East, led by the USS Harry Truman nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Support vessels include a guided missile cruiser and four naval destroyers, a U.S. Navy spokesperson said.
The USS Donald Cook, armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, is already in the region, having left the Cypriot port of Lanarca on Monday.
The USS Porter, which participated in the previous Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian chemical weapons site, is currently at port in Cherbourg, France. The USS Ross – of the same class – left Plymouth on Sunday following exercises with the British Royal Navy. Both will take a few days to reach the Syrian coast, as will the battle group led by the USS Harry Truman, which will be joined initially by a German warship.
The French frigate Aquitaine, armed with cruise missiles, is already off the coast of Lebanon: that vessel was reportedly buzzed by low-flying Russian warplanes last weekend.