On Jan. 13 in the Syrian city of Daraya, five people were killed and more than 20 injured after being exposed to a mysterious gas. Syrian activists, including some witnesses on the ground, believe that the attack is evidence the Syrian government is still using chemical weapons against its own people—months after that regime pledged to destroy its nerve gas arsenal.
A group of survivors of Syrian government atrocities, including chemical weapons attacks verified by U.N. inspectors, visited Washington this month to press the White House, State Department, and Congressional officials to take a more active role in preventing atrocities in Syria—and to further investigate this alleged attack on Jan. 13.
The U.S. government, however, isn’t inclined to do so—despite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s promise in September to give up his chemical stockpile, and despite mounting calls in Washington to do more about the ongoing carnage in Syria.
“I don’t think it’s a credible claim,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “There were a bunch of rebel groups involved in that conflict at the time. And they can’t get their story straight.”
Eyewitnesses say otherwise. Oussama al-Chourbaji, a pharmacist from Daraya who represents the medical office of the Daraya local council, said he witnessed the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 13 attack and the treatment of victims.
“We don’t know exactly what chemical was used, but I can tell you all of those who were affected or killed had the exact same symptoms as the August 21, 2013 attack (in East Ghouta) in which Sarin gas was used,” he said, referring to the massive chemical strike in the Damascus suburbs that killed nearly 1400 people, by some estimates, and brought the United States to the brink of intervening in the Syrian civil war.
Doctors on the ground collected samples of blood and other evidence from the victims but were unable to smuggle the samples out of the country to be examined, said al-Chourbaji. The samples are still in the hands of local leaders. One surviving victim from the attack was able to leave the city and is currently being transported to Jordan.
“There were three bombs, the first one and then after some time, two more came down. Five died right away after breathing in the gasses that came out of the bombs,” he said.
“There were three bombs, the first one and then after some time, two more came down. Five died right away after breathing in the gasses that came out of the bombs.”
Dan Layman, spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, an American organization that works with rebel groups, said that his organization has been working to collect more information about the Jan. 13 gas attack. According to SSG sources on the ground, a hand-thrown bomb filled with a chemical substance was thrown from a building filled with Syrian Arab Army officers, after the building itself was surrounded by a group of rebel fighters, he said.
The bomb immediately incapacitated the group of fighters, four of whom died, the SSG reported. According to SSG’s sources on the ground, other victims experienced myosis—constriction of the pupils—labored breathing, dizziness, and convulsions. Victims were treated with atropine, which was somewhat successful in combatting the symptoms. Atropine is a standard treatment for those exposed to Sarin nerve gas.
Al-Chourbaji said the revolutionaries hit with the gas bombs were from the Brigade of Daraya Martys. The local council of Daraya issued a press release about the attack at the time and posted photos of the victims on their Facebook page and videos of the victims on YouTube. These images, however, were nowhere near as graphic as the ones that came out after the Aug. 21 strike.
Two administration officials told The Daily Beast that the State Department was aware of the reports about the Jan. 13 gas attack but was unable to corroborate or confirm that chemical weapons were used. One official raised the possibility that some other kind of poison gas, not a “chemical weapon,” might have caused the injuries and deaths. (The Syrian military has also been known to mix more and less-lethal gasses in order to mask the use of chemical weapons.)
The local leaders in Daraya are calling for U.N. investigators to return to the area and investigate the recent attack. Al-Chourbaji said that when the group of survivors met with a team of State Department officials last week, the officials seemed indifferent and unwilling to pursue the matter.
“When we told the State Department, they really didn’t seem to care that much. They just advised us to take pictures [to document the taking of the samples] as if we were in a CSI episode. People are dying are we are making a movie,” he said. “They said, ‘If they strike you again with chemical weapons, take pictures and tell us.’”
Just after the attack, al-Chourbaji said, a representative of the U.S. government who claimed to be from the State Department did ask the local council to preserve the samples and get them to Jordan. But as of now the samples are still in Daraya.
There have been dozens of allegations of chemical attacks in Syria. But United Nations inspectors have only been able to confirm five, including a series of Sarin gas attacks on Aug. 21.. Once the U.S. intelligence community concluded that elements of the Bashar al-Assad regime launched those strikes, President Obama announced that he had decided to pursue limited strikes against the Syrian military, but then called off those strikes after Assad agreed to disclose and hand over his chemical weapons stockpiles.
The remainder of the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria since late 2012 have never been confirmed by the U.S. government or U.N. inspectors.. Meanwhile, international inspectors have said they believe the Syrian government is slow walking the transfer of those stockpiles out of Syria. As of January 30, the Assad regime had only delivered four percent of its dangerous chemicals, according to Robert Mikula, the American envoy to the Hague.
Daraya has been a center of the protest movement for three years and has suffered a series of atrocities well before the alleged chemical weapons attack last month. Anas al-Dabas, a citizen of Daraya, witnessed a massacre in 2012 perpetrated by Syrian military forces.
“In August 2012, 900 people were killed in two hours, with bullets, not with chemical weapons,” he said. “We heard heavy gunfire, we went outside to see what happened, I went to the building next to my house, we went to the basement and we saw 70 dead bodies. They were summarily executed with bullets. Their ages ranged from 15 to 75 years old. I know all of them, these were all my neighbors and friends.”
The survivors’ trip to Washington was organized and funded by the Syrian Opposition Coalition. They asked lawmakers and administration officials to help ensure humanitarian access to besieged areas inside Syria. They also asked for the U.S. to provide anti-aircraft weapons to the rebels or to bomb Syrian air force runways, to prevent air assaults against civilian populations.
Last summer, Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to have argued for airstrikes in a high level White House meeting, only to be rejected by the U.S. military. The administration is reportedly considering new options for aiding the Syrian rebels, but those could be limited to paying rebel salaries and increasing transportation and intelligence support.
Aminah Sawan, a 20 year old university student from the Damascus suburbs, was a survivor of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. One week after that attack, her brother, sister, and sister-in-law were killed by a mortar shell fired by the Syrian military. She said that the U.S. touting of the chemical weapons agreement ignores the other atrocities perpetrated by the regime, including starvation and mass torture.
“They are taking the chemical weapons from the regime but they are not ending the suffering,” she said. “They are telling the Syria people, ‘Okay, we are releasing you finally from this kind of death, but you may now die in other ways.’”