In Syria, women and children were among the dozens found dead under suspicious circumstances this week. Rebel forces said more than 1,000 people were killed by the government in a chemical weapons attack, while the authorities dismissed the report as "baseless". So, where does this incident leave the international community, if the so-called red line has been crossed?
On Wednesday, the Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons on civilians in a Damascus suburb. Evidence for the use of illegal weapons is piling up, with one more incriminating piece added on Saturday. Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, released the number of patients the organization saw in Damascus that day, stating that approximately 3,600 patients showed signs of neurotoxocity. Symptoms included respiratory distress, blurred vision and even convulsions. Of those displaying symptoms, 355 died. Obama's red line, it seems, is becoming clearer by the day.
"Patients were treated using MSF-supplied atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms. MSF is now trying to replenish the facilities’ empty stocks and provide additional medical supplies and guidance.
“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Dr. Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”
In addition to 1,600 vials of atropine supplied over recent months, MSF has now dispatched 7,000 additional vials to facilities in the area. Treatment of neurotoxic patients is now being fully integrated into MSF’s medical strategies in all its programs in Syria."
“MSF hopes that independent investigators will be given immediate access to shed light on what happened,” said Christopher Stokes, MSF general director. “This latest attack and subsequent massive medical need come on top of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation, characterised by extreme violence, displacement, and deliberate destruction of medical facilities. In the case of such extreme violations of humanitarian law, humanitarian assistance cannot respond effectively and becomes meaningless itself.”
Meanwhile, President Obama is scheduled to meet with his national security team on Saturday, days after the Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons on civilians near Damascus. "We have a range of options available, and we are going to act very deliberately," said a White House official. Although the U.S. government has so far been reluctant to get involved in Syria's civil war, this recent move could prove a turning point. A year ago, Obama said that chemical weapons represented a "red line" for the government's (in)actions with regard to Syria. Meanwhile, the UN is also pressing for action, as the body's disarmament chief arrived in Damascus on Saturday to press for an inquiry into the alleged chemical use.