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Monday
May272013

Syria 1st-Hand: Regime "Gas Attacks" in Damascus (Le Monde)


Guerre chimique à Damas by lemondefr


The French daily Le Monde posts an extensive article (credited to Jean-Philippe Rémy) and photographs, based on a two-month stay by their reporters alongside insurgents in the Jobar section of Damascus: 

A chemical attack on the Jobar front, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, doesn't look like anything much at first. It's not spectacular. Above all, it's not detectable. And that's the aim: by the time the rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army who have penetrated furthest into Damascus understand that they've been exposed to chemical products by government forces, it's too late. No matter which type of gas is used, it has already produced its effects, only a few hundred meters from residential areas of the Syrian capital.

At first, there is only a little sound, a metallic ping, almost a click. And in the confusion of daily combat in Jobar's Bahra 1 sector, this sound didn't catch the attention of the fighters of the Tahrir al-Sham ('Liberation of Syria') Brigade. 'We thought it was a mortar that didn't explode, and no one really paid attention to it,' said Omar Haidar, chief of operations of the brigade, which holds this forward position less than 500 meters from Abbasid Square.

Searching for words to describe the incongruous sound, he said it was like 'a Pepsi can that falls to the ground.' No odor, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas. And then the symptoms appear. The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate.

Reporters from Le Monde witnessed this on several days in a row in this district, on the outskirts of Damascus, which the rebels entered in January. Since then, Jobar has become a key battleground for both the Free Syrian Army and the government. In two months spent reporting on the outskirts of the Syrian captial, we encountered similar cases across a much larger region. Their gravity, their increasing frequency and the tactic of using such arms shows that what is being released is not just tear gas, which is used on all fronts, but products of a different class that are far more toxic.

In the tangled web of the Jobar front, where enemy lines are so close that the fighters exchange insults as often as they kill each other, gas attacks occurred on a regular basis in April. The gas was not diffused over a broad swath of territory but used occasionally in specific locations by government forces to attack the areas of toughest fighting with the encroaching opposition rebels. This sector is the place where Free Syrian Army groups have penetrated most deeply into Damascus. A merciless war is being waged here.

The sector known as Bahra 1 is one of the most forward positions en route to the sprawling and strategic Abbasid Square, one of the key gateways to Damascus. It was here that fighters commanded by Abu Jihad, known as "the Argileh", experienced their first such attack on Thursday, April 11. They were taken by surprise. They had heard of gas being used on other fronts, in other regions of Syria (notably Homs and the Aleppo region), over the last few months, but what to do when faced with such an attack? How to protect themselves without abandoning their positions and handing an easy victory to the enemy? "Some of the men were evacuated, while others were paralysed with fear," one of the fighters said. "But we didn't abandon the position. We ordered the soldiers heading to the front to take wet scarves with them to protect their faces."

A few gas masks were distributed in the confusion, with priority going to the men in fixed positions where a simple wall sometimes marks the limit of rebel-held territory. Others had to make do with the insignificant protection of surgical masks.

The men under the command of 'the Argileh' are not the only ones in the area to have experienced a gas attack. Closer to the nearby meat market, where government tanks are stationed, the 'special forces' of Liwa Marawi Al-Ghouta were exposed to concentrations of chemicals that were undoubtedly stronger, judging by their effects on the fighters. We found them in hospitals, struggling for survival, in the hours following the attacks.

In Jobar, the fighters did not desert their positions, but those who stayed on the front lines – with constricted pupils and wheezing breath – were 'terrorised and trying to calm themselves through prayer,' admitted Abu Atal, one of the fighters of Tahrir Al-Sham. A man from another brigade, Ibrahim Darwish, died in a nearby sector on April 18.

In the northern part of Jobar, which was struck by a similar attack, General Abu Mohammad Al-Kurdi, commander of the Free Syrian Army's first division (which groups five brigades), said that his men saw government soldiers leave their positions just before other men 'wearing chemical protection suits' surged forward and set 'little bombs, like mines' on the ground that began giving off a chemical product. The general asserted that his men had killed three of these technicians. Where are the protection suits seized from the dead? Nobody knows... The soldiers who came under attack that night said there had been a terrible panic, with men fleeing to to the rear. There are no civilians or independent sources to confirm or deny this account: no one is left in Jobar apart from the men fighting on the neighborhood's various fronts.

But this does not prevent observation of the devastating effects of the gases being used by the Syrian government at the gates of its own capital.

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