Syria Conflict: World Figures Condemn Suspected Idlib Chemical Attack, Urge Investigation

Civil defense worker after chemical attack
A member of Syria's civil defense breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4. World figures on Tuesday condemned the attack and called for an investigation. Reuters/Ammar Abdullah

Images of Syrians foaming at the mouth, struggling for air, confronted the international community once again on Tuesday. World leaders again condemned what monitors and activists reported to be a suspected chemical attack in Idlib that left at least 58 people dead.

Activists posted videos online showing civilians lying on muddied ground in rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria, as masked medics hosed them down to remove any chemical agents.

The attack killed at least 11 children, all under the age of 8, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based monitoring group. Doctors say the death toll is likely to rise. In a videoed press conference, doctor Munzur Khaleel, of the Idlib Health Directorate said the remaining medical facilities in Idlib cannot cope with the aftermath.

"Most of the medical centers in the province in Idlib are now over full with injured, as a result of the use of poisonous gases," he said. "The number of the dead will very likely continue to rise because many of the injured are in a serious condition and the lack of enough necessary medicines to treat this."

European Union officials, Middle Eastern leaders and the Syrian opposition, currently participating in Geneva peace talks, held the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible for the attack.

Leaders point to Assad, call for probe

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin after the attack, warning that such incidents will further endanger peace that both are working to broker. Russia supports Assad's regime, and Turkey supports moderate Syrian rebels battling his rule.

Erdogan told Putin that the "inhuman attack…risked wasting all the efforts" on negotiations, a Turkish presidential source told AFP news agency. Turkey dispatched 30 ambulances from its southern border into Syria to evacuate those affected in the attack, Turkish news agency Anadolu reported.

Read more: A "chemical attack" has killed at least 58 people in a rebel-held Syrian town

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to hold the Assad regime responsible, saying he was "shocked and outraged" by the attack. He called on the international community to "fully and finally remove these horrible weapons from Syria." Israel regularly clashes with and targets Syrian government forces on its northern border in the Golan Heights, a territory it captured from Syria and occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the reports were "awful" and that Assad's government "has the primary responsibility of protecting its people and not attacking its people."

The Syrian opposition, in a statement released Tuesday, said the U.N. must "take the necessary measures to ensure the officials, perpetrators and supporters are held accountable."

Other world figures were more cautious in apportioning blame to any party in the conflict. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson called for an investigation but did not go as far as to blame Assad's forces.

"Horrific reports of chemical weapons attack in Idlib, Syria. Incident must be investigated & perpetrators held to account," he tweeted Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault condemned the "atrocious act" and called an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting over the incident and other acts "that threaten international security."

The U.N.'s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura called the attack "horrific" and said the U.N. Security Council should demand accountability for those responsible. He said the attack appeared to be have been carried out from the air. Syrian rebels do not have an air force operating in the country, unlike Assad's forces, Russia and the U.S.-led coalition.

Washington is yet to comment on the attack, but the U.S. administration has given mixed messages as to its position on Syria. On Thursday, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said it was not a U.S. priority to remove Assad from power, but on Monday she called him a "war criminal" who the U.S. would object to standing for reelection.

Russian denial

An Islamist faction known as Jaysh al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, controls large parts of Idlib province, which borders Latakia province, a heartland for Assad loyalists. Many people evacuated from Aleppo city in Russia and Turkey's December deal traveled to Idlib, and the regime has since shifted its efforts to the rebel-held region.

Activists reported that after the suspected chemical attack an airstrike targeted a field hospital treating the victims. The number of casualties remains unconfirmed.

Russia is conducting airstrikes against rebels and jihadists in Idlib Province but the Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that its jets did not carry out airstrikes in the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government is yet to comment publicly on the attack but a pro-government journalist, Hussein Mortada, called the incident something out of "a Turkish soap opera."

The U.N. believes the Syrian government to have been behind at least three chemical weapons attacks on civilians in the six-year conflict prior to Tuesday's incident, but the regime denies the allegations.

SOHR chief Rami Abdulrahman told Newsweek on Tuesday that Syrian doctors said the symptoms of the victims were similar to those of previous chlorine gas attacks. But other doctors have said this attack was much more serious because the damage to civilians was spread across a wide area. Dr. AbdulHai Tennari, a medic who treated dozens of victims in the town on Tuesday, told the Associated Press that the attack may have used the chemical agent sarin.

The international chemical weapons watchdog, known as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said Tuesday that it is gathering evidence "from all available sources." If the use of a nerve agent is confirmed, it could be the most deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria since August 2013. That took place in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in which the U.S. government said the use of the toxic sarin agent killed more than 1,000 people.

The attack pushed the U.S. and Russia to reach an agreement with Assad for the removal of Syria's entire chemical weapons program in September 2013. Syria subsequently joined the OPCW following the deal. Prior to the agreement, the Syrian leader denied the country's possession of any such material. U.N. inspectors have since found traces of nerve agents Sarin and XV at Hafir 1, an underground lab belonging to the Assad regime.

Rena Netjes contributed translation from Amsterdam.