A Spin-Free Account of the Alleged Chemical Attack in Syria

Since April 7, there has been an overwhelming tidal wave of information, misinformation, and confusion regarding the alleged chemical attacks in Douma, Syria. It feels impossible to know what’s true and what’s not—which can make it overwhelming to try to know how to respond. So we’ve broken it down for you, in the most spin-free way possible.

Here’s a straightforward take on what happened, what we know, and what we simply can’t know for sure.

What we know

Unverified videos claiming to be taken in Douma on April 7, 2018 show people (including children) gasping for breath, foaming at the mouth, being hosed down and treated for respiratory problems—responses that are consistent with a chemical attack involving chlorine and possibly sarin gas.

The world was quick to point fingers:

  • Almost immediately, President Trump called it a chemical attack and blamed the Syrian government (specifically President Assad), Russia, and Iran. The argument for this view is that the Syrian government is eager to take back all the territory held by opposition groups, particularly around the capital Damascus, and since they’ve allegedly used chemical weapons before this is just more of the same.
  • The Syrian government and Russian news sources claim there was no chemical attack. They’ve accused opposition groups in eastern Ghouta of staging a fake or “false flag” chemical attack in an attempt to make the U.S. and other Western countries intervene against the Syrian government. The argument for this view is that it is in the opposition’s best interest for the West to intervene, and it would be against the Syrian government’s strategic interest to use chemical weapons, especially at this stage of the war.
  • A widely-shared article published by The Independent suggested there may not have been a chemical attack in Douma, and that those people were actually suffering from asthma attacks after a dust storm. The article, however didn’t draw any hard-and-fast conclusions and was based largely on the testimony of one doctor who, by his own admission, was not a witness to the attack or its immediate aftermath.

In the days following April 7, a team of chemical weapons inspectors known as the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) tried to access the site in order to test the area and verify weather or not chemical weapons had been used. They were initially blocked from entering the area.

  • The U.S. and the U.K. accused Russia and Syria of preventing the OPCW from accessing Douma in order to give themselves time to remove evidence of chemical weapons and keep the truth from being discovered.

The OPCW was eventually able to inspect two sites in Douma, on April 21 and 25—two weeks after the suspected attack. The results of their inspection have not yet been released.

On April 14, the US, UK, and France launched a joint attack on Syria, firing more than 100 missiles at multiple targets, including an alleged chemical research weapons lab near Damascus and a suspected storage facility near Homs. Once again, opposing sides offered contrasting narratives of what took place.

  • Syrian and Russian news sources claim that they shot down the vast majority of missiles and that nothing was destroyed, making the attack a failure.

  • U.S. military officials claim that few, if any, of the missiles were shot down and that they successfully destroyed three[c][d][e] chemical weapons research and storage facilities near Damascus.

For their part, Syrians themselves are divided on what they believe happened and how they feel about the global response.

  • Many Syrians support the Syrian government. They see the opposition and rebel groups as terrorists and therefore view President Assad and Russia as their protectors. The way they see it, Presidents Assad and Putin are all that stand between Syria and ISIS or other terrorist groups.

In these people’s opinion, the Syrian government would not use chemical weapons, but terrorist groups absolutely would. They also view Western missile strikes as an act of aggression and a clear sign that the West supports terrorists who want to take over Syria.

  • On the flip side, there are Syrians who support the opposition groups, whom they see as champions of democracy and freedom. They see the Syrian government as oppressive and violent and are therefore looking to remove President Assad from power. Most of the people who support opposition groups live in opposition-held territory—the regions that the government is slowly but surely taking back into its control. Over the last couple of years, they’ve taken back Aleppo and Ghouta. The rebel-held province Idlib is now in their sights.

The people in these areas have seen the government use chemical weapons in the past. To them, there is no doubt they were used again and that the Syrian government is to blame. Because of that, they tend to either see the Western military response as totally warranted or too little, too late.

The especially complicated thing is the huge variety of opposition groups in Syria—from pro-democracy forces to Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and everything in between.  Throughout the last seven years of war, these groups have evolved, collaborated, and fought each other. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to know which group is which, where they stand, who belongs to them, and how they relate to each other.

It’s complicated. Knowing who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are is not only the wrong way to approach a situation like this; it’s impossible.

What we don’t know

Nearly anything with any certainty.

We don’t know for sure what happened in Douma on April 7. We don’t know for sure who is responsible. The Syrian government has used chemicals like this in the past, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they used them this time.

What all this uncertainty means for us and our work

Honestly? Very little.

While we do care very much what happened on April 7 and who is responsible, our response to the situation remains pretty much the same regardless. We will keep showing up for people affected by violence no matter what the chemical weapons experts determine.

A displaced family in a camp outside Ghouta, Syria.

Bottom line for us is that there are tens of thousands of people being affected by the violence in Douma and the surrounding areas. They are hungry, injured, sick, and thirsty and the humanitarian response is underfunded. Camps are crowded—running out of food and overrun with disease.

So we will show up and help people no matter how they got hurt or who hurt them. We will make them hot meals every single day and provide urgent medical care, regardless of how they ended up displaced, injured, or sick.

Medical care for displaced families outside Ghouta, Syria.

Syria is full of uncertainty. And uncertainty can be paralyzing. But there are a few things we can be certain about… like our own conviction to respond with compassion and our dedication to show up and love anyway. Our response to violence is not about what happened or who did what… it’s about what kind of people we want to be.

So we will keep showing up—with you—no matter how complicated or risky it might be.