UNITED NATIONS – U.N. Security Council members were moved to tears Thursday as the first eyewitness to the latest suspected chlorine attacks on civilians in Syria emerged from the country to give a graphic eyewitness account of dying children.
A Syrian doctor who treated victims from a half-dozen attacks over the past month, Mohamed Tennari, was helped out of the country by the United States, which arranged for the closed-door briefing.
He showed a video of a suspected chlorine attack March 16 in his town of Sarmin in Idlib province, with images of three children, ages 1 through 3, dying despite attempts to resuscitate them. The medical area was so cramped that one of the children was lying on top of their grandmother, who also died.
"Everyone smelled bleach-like odors" and heard the sound of helicopters, Tennari later told reporters after showing them the video. He said most of the victims were women and children.
The U.S. and other council members have repeatedly blamed the Syrian government for such attacks, saying no one else in the grinding civil war has helicopters to deliver the toxic chemicals.
On Friday, Tennari will meet with Russia's U.N. delegation as the U.S. and other council members try to persuade the Syrian government's top ally to stop using its veto power against proposed action on the four-year conflict.
"These are humans who can be affected," said another doctor at the briefing, Zaher Sahloul, who leads the Syrian American Medical Society. "Everyone agrees children should not be killed." He visited the sites of a number of the recent attacks in Syria over the weekend.
Every country in the 15-member council brought up the need for accountability in the sometimes deadly attacks, except for Russia and allies China and Venezuela, Sahloul said. He said every council member was affected by the video and briefing, and "some of them cried."
Turning that emotion into action that the council can agree on remains a challenge.
"What we've done today is brought individuals who can testify to what happened, brought the facts to the council in as rapid and moving a way as we could do," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters just after the meeting. "And it is now, in our view, incumbent on the council to go further than we have been able to come to this point, to get past the old divisions."
The council last month approved a resolution condemning the use of toxic chemicals in Syria and threatening action against any violations, but the U.N.'s most powerful body seems stuck because there is no way to formally assign blame for attacks.
Neither the U.N. nor the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has a mandate to assign blame in the attacks, though the OPCW this year condemned the use of chlorine in Syria as a breach of international law. Council members have asked the OPCW to look into the latest attacks.
The council found rare agreement on Syria in the fall of 2013 to order the removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, but chlorine was not declared as a chemical weapon. The chemical does not have to be declared because it is also used for regular purposes in industry.