Updated: 11:12 p.m. ET
Dozens of Syrians in Douma have died by suffocation, following reports of a chemical attack. Douma is the last rebel-held enclave in eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus. The alleged attack comes amidst days of heavy bombardment by government forces in an effort to assert control over the town.
Many of the dead are reportedly women and children. Death tolls vary, with the Syrian Civil Defense, a pro-opposition group also known as the White Helmets, reporting at least 42 fatalities.
Photos circulating on social media show lifeless bodies piled in basements. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring agency says that at least 80 people have died, but these reports cannot be independently verified.
UOSSM, a medical aid association with doctors stationed in the Intensive Care Unit in Douma detailed to NPR a one-two chemical attack. The first attack appeared to use chlorine gas. Most in the ICU were treated and apparently survived. The second, stronger chemical attack followed a half hour later –deploying a gas that hit homes and penetrated basements. Medical workers report a chlorine odor, however they believe the second attack was mixed with a stronger chemical agent, causing instant death.
According to the Syrian Civil Defense and SAMS, people went to the hospital showing “signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor.”
Chlorine attacks have been used frequently in Syria, as recently as the last few weeks.
President Trump has previously launched airstrikes against Syria following a chemical attack in the northern part of the country. His next steps are more unclear. Trump recently told a crowd in Ohio that “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”
But he took to Twitter this morning to condemn what he called a “mindless CHEMICAL attack. He referred to Syrian President Bashar Assad as an “animal” and pointed to a “big price to pay.”
He also pointed to Syria’s allies, Iran and Russian president Vladimir Putin for supporting the Assad government.
Later Sunday on a phone call, Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to hold the Assad regime accountable for its “continued human rights abuses.” They also “agreed to exchange information on the nature of the attacks and coordinate a strong, joint response,” reports the White House.
The State Department says it is monitoring the situation in Syria, calling the acts horrific and if confirmed, demanding “an immediate response by the international community.” Russia, with its “unwavering support” ultimately bears the responsibility for the suffocation of Syrian civilians, the Department said.
Both Russia and the Syrian government deny the reports of the chemical attack, calling them bogus and fabricated.
There are unconfirmed reports from Syrian State TV and the Syrian Observatory that Douma has been surrendered to Syrian government forces by the rebels, Jaish al-Islam. In recent weeks the regime and its ally Russia have claimed similar deals to have been reached — Jaish al-Islam rebels remained silent and any deal, whether or not it had been brokered, never happened.
National, International Condemnation
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are also calling on President Trump to act definitively. U.S. Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser Thomas Bossert tells ABC’s This Week that all options are on the table, and would not rule out launching a missile in response. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), appearing on the same program called this a defining moment for the president, and said that Trump needs to follow through with his tweets or risk looking “weak” to Russia and Iran.
Pope Francis, in his Sunday Mass called the attacks an unjustifiable use of “instruments of extermination” and urged political leaders to seek a different path “of negotiations, which is the only one that can bring about peace and not death and destruction.”
The French Foreign Minister, Jean Yves Le Drian has called on the United Nations to meet quickly and examine the situation, calling the reports a “gross violation of international human law.” The United Nations could meet as soon as Monday.