Syria

Syria's chemical attack may be on hold, but the crisis continues

Ahmad Tarakji

Late Monday night, the White House released a statement warning of “potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime that would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children.”

This marked  the first time since the conflict began in 2011 that Syrian civil society, and the larger international community, received such a preemptive warning. The announcement was made around 4:00 AM local time in Syria, which is around the same time that the Syrian forces launched their chemical attacks in the past.

As soon as the announcement was made, my organization, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), started calling our medical personnel and field hospitals to alert them and ensure that they were prepared for another unlawful chemical attack against the people of Syria and that they had the necessary antidote and protection gears.

“I only have the protocol book of what I, theoretically, should use," one of our medical directors in besieged East Ghouta told me. "If an attack takes place in Ghouta, I only have expired antidotes to use. And by the way, just like in 2013, we, the medical staff cannot protect ourselves from the nerve gas while we are helping the victims. We simply  do not have protection garments.”

The leaders of the international community are in fact stuck at the 2013 agreement, and still act as if it was a great success. Meanwhile, Syrian civilians face forced displacement, destruction of infrastructure, terrorism, violence, and reckless, conflicting military agendas.

“As you know," he continued, "they have been removing any meaningful medication from the very limited number of convoys that entered Ghouta over the last three years. When we asked for atropine, the antidote, the UN office in Damascus refused to even discuss it."

In August 2013, around 2:30 AM local time in Syria EST, Sarin gas was used on the residents of East Ghouta, killing more than 1,300 people, many of whom were children, while they slept in their beds. Following the attack, the Damascus-based UN investigation team was tasked with investigating if it was a chemical attack. However, the team was never given the mandate of attributing the attack.

A few months later, in October 2013, East Ghouta was subjected to a siege by the regime and its allies. Today, about 400,000 people, including 95,000 children, are currently trapped with no access to adequate medical care, medical supplies, food, and vitamins. People have resorted to using expired medication and eating a diet consisting of primarily vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, and lettuce. The siege has intensified  over the years, and with the forced displacement of the surrounding cities and areas, a complete and suffocating siege has been reinforced.

The ”kneel or starve to death” tactic of the Syrian regime has been used throughout Syria to force people to comply and surrender.  Once an agricultural area, East Ghouta had many farms and was able to generate its own produce and other products.

Now, during the harvest season, the regime will allow a large amount of these vegetables to enter East Ghouta at a very low price, limiting the ability of farmers to sell their produce and increasing the loans that the farmers have to pay back. This has caused the local economy to collapse. Yet, the siege gets tougher and tougher. 

Since 2013, a very limited number of convoys were allowed in. Medical supplies were removed from the convoys. Patients with cancer, diabetes, and renal failure were denied supplies, evacuation, and the necessary medical care. Besieged patients with renal failure are at risk of death two times higher than the ones who are not under siege, according to a study released by SAMS.

The UN leadership was clear about describing the crisis. Two weeks ago, Mr. Jan Egeland, commenting on the blocked aid and how this is the longest period of time without access by ground to any besieged area, said “It is unacceptable that we do have trucks ready, courageous humanitarian workers eager to go, even in a great danger,” he said. The last convoy that was allowed in earlier this month was attacked before getting into the besieged area; no investigation took place to identify the perpetrators.

Instead of forcing de-escalation to protect civilians, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a “better” deal in 2013. Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons was supposedly destroyed in order to provide for better international security. Yet for the Syrians, innocent civilians continue to be brutally killed and starved to death. The international community has stopped counting once the death toll in Syria’s seven-year conflict has reached half a million.

In April 2017, my organization led the medical response to a series of multiple chemical attacks, including the attack on Khan Sheikhon that garnered more international attention than the previous chemical attacks. While the use of nerve gas again by the Syrian government shocked much of the world,  it didn’t surprise Syrian civil society, who for years had been trying to call the world’s attention to this threat, but whose cries were repeatedly ignored.

Now, civil society has to face another grim fate: forced displacement, destruction of civilian infrastructure, terrorism, violence, and reckless, conflicting military agendas to dominate Syria’s future and the future of its people.

The leaders of the international community are in fact stuck at the 2013 agreement, and still act as if it was a great success and a way to score points.

The White House statement Monday might have aborted another chemical attack on civilians, but it clearly stated that chemical weapons were still in Syria and being utilized.

Unfortunately, world leaders continue to address only the parts that fit their political agendas.

How can we expect to improve international security while blood continues to be shed without accountability? How can we expect to reduce displacement while civilian infrastructures are being constantly targeted and destroyed?  How can  we expect to address people’s basic humanitarian needs while the economy of war continues to be fueled by paralyzing and manipulating humanitarian operations?

Monday's announcement might have deterred an attack, but the reality still remains that the current approach will not solve the problem. The crisis in Syria and in the region requires leadership - leadership that addresses the root cause of the problem, leadership that supports the needs of the civil society, and leadership that takes meaningful, principled actions to de-escalate the crisis and challenge the status quo.

“You can always ask, but they [international community] will only kick the can down the road,” one of my colleagues in Ghouta told me yesterday. It’s time for the world to listen and act. 

Dr. Ahmad Tarakji, a cardio-thoracic surgeon in California, and former clinical assistant professor at Stanford University, is the President of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a non-profit, non-political professional and medical relief organization that provides assistance to Syrians.