Sunday 20 January 2019

Pope condemns Syria attack as unjustifiable use of 'instruments of extermination'

Scores feared dead in alleged Syria chemical attack as US demands international response

Pope Francis: 'There is no such thing as a good war and a bad war'

A Syrian child receives treatment following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, on April 4, 2017
A Syrian child receives treatment following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, on April 4, 2017

Chris Graham

Pope Francis on Sunday deplored the gas attack reported in Syria as an unjustifiable use of "instruments of extermination".

"There is no such thing as a good war and a bad war. Nothing, but nothing, can justify the use of such instruments of extermination on defenceless people and populations," he said at the end of a Mass in St. Peter's Square.

He urged that "military and political leaders choose another path, that of negotiations, which is the only one that can bring about peace and not death and destruction".

An alleged chemical attack reportedly killed scores of civilians, including children, in Syria on Saturday, with the US describing the reports as "horrifying".

A Syrian rebel group accused government forces of dropping a barrel bomb containing poisonous chemicals on civilians in eastern Ghouta, with one rescue group reporting more than 150 deaths.

Syrian state media denied government forces had launched any chemical attack and said rebels in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma were in a state of collapse and spreading false news.

US troops in Manbij, northern Syria (Hussein Malla/AP)
US troops in Manbij, northern Syria (Hussein Malla/AP)

On Saturday evening, the US State Department said the reports of mass casualties were "horrifying" and would demand an international response if confirmed, laying some of the blame with Russia.

Disturbing photos and footage emerged showing dead children foaming from the mouth, the hallmarks of a chemical attack such as chlorine or sarin.

One video shows the lifeless bodies of around a dozen children, women and men. "Douma city, April 7 ... there is a strong smell here," a voice can be heard saying.

The White Helmets civil defence workers said more than 150 were killed and more than 1,000 being treated for exposure to chemical weapons.

"Entire families in shelters gassed to death in #Douma #EastGhouta hiding in their cellars, suffocated from the poisonous gas," it said on Twitter.

Medical relief organisation Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said at least 41 people had been killed.

The attack comes a week after US President Donald Trump said he wanted the US presence in Syria to end "very soon".

If the chemical weapons attack is confirmed, it would pose a dilemma for the president, who has promises to hold President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to account over the use of chemical weapons.

Following a chemical attack last year, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the air base from which the attacks had originated.

“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Mr Trump said at the time. “It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the reports, if confirmed, were "horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community".

Citing a history of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime, Ms Nauert said Assad's government and its backer Russia needed to be held accountable and "any further attacks prevented immediately."

"Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks," Ms Nauert said.

"Russia's protection of the Assad regime and failure to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria calls into question its commitment to resolving the overall crisis and to larger non-proliferation priorities," she said, calling upon Moscow to join international efforts to prevent further attacks.

One analyst likened the emerging atrocity to the use of mustard gas by the Italian fascists in Ethiopia in the 1930s.

"Just as Syria has uncanny echoes of the Spanish Civil War, so the Syrian regime’s repeated use of poison gas recalls another dark episode from the Thirties, when Facsist Italy used chemical weapons against defenceless Ethiopians," Dr Euan Graham, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, told The Telegraph.

"That atrocity contributed to the unraveling order back then, exposing the inability of the League of Nations to prevent aggression and barbarity by authoritarian leaders. Now we are witnessing another global unraveling, and a corresponding slide into irrelevance for the UN."

Jeremy Konyndyk, former US humanitarian aid chief, now with the Center for Global Development think-tank, said he warned last year "that strikes without an accompanying strategy would prove meaningless", adding: "Tonight shows why." 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said 11 people had died in Douma as a result of suffocation caused by the smoke from conventional weapons being dropped by the government. It said a total of 70 people suffered breathing difficulties.

The recovery and rescue efforts were continuing even as fresh barrages of artillery fire were reported in the battered neighbourhood.

By Saturday evening, state media was reported that troops were approaching Army of Islam fortifications on the edge of the town adding that street battles could begin soon. It said warplanes bombarded the group's headquarters and command and control centre.

Medical relief organisation Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said a chlorine bomb hit Douma hospital, killing six people, and a second attack with "mixed agents" including nerve agents had hit a nearby building.

Basel Termanini, the US-based vice president of SAMS, told Reuters the total death toll in the chemical attacks was 35. "We are contacting the UN and the U.S. government and the European governments," he said.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the rebel group in Douma, Jaish al-Islam, was making "chemical attack fabrications in an exposed and failed attempt to obstruct advances by the Syrian Arab army," citing an official source.

Bombing had subsided last week as Moscow pursued talks with Jaish al-Islam, the Islamist faction that holds Douma, putting military operations seemingly on hold for about 10 days.

But the negotiations crumbled and air strikes resumed on Friday, killing 40 civilians according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Last year, a joint inquiry by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found the Syrian government was responsible for an April 4, 2017 attack using the banned nerve agent sarin in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of people.

The inquiry had previously found that Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and that Islamic State militants used mustard gas.

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