More than six months after a U.N.-documented chemical weapons attack killed 1,400 civilians in eastern Ghouta, Syrian doctors working in the suburbs of Damascus have reported a number of small-scale chemical attacks, claiming that despite a global effort to destroy Assad’s cache of nerve agents, chemicals weapons are still being used on the battlefield.
Rebel groups have accused the Syrian government of the alleged chemical attacks. The government, in turn, has accused rebel groups of orchestrating the attacks and maintains it is fully cooperating with the Organization for the Protection of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing chemical weapons removal.
Though no blood samples or other proof of chemical attacks have surfaced, doctors in Adra have tracked cases and symptoms they say would indicate chemical weapons exposure.
In one case, “about 20 people were injured. They were all fighters; none were civilians,” said one doctor, who spoke to Syria Deeply on condition of anonymity last month. “They exhibited symptoms of shortness of breath, and some even suffered suffocation. We believe Sarin gas was used in Adra, based on the patients’ symptoms.”
On Wednesday, the Syrian American Medical Society, a group of Syrian-American doctors and surgeons traveling in and out of Syria, released a report in which it condemned what it said was a “poisonous gas attack” in Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, on March 27.
“At least 25 people were injured and four were killed in the attack,” it said. “All victims were taken to a SAMS supported facility in the area. SAMS physicians confirmed the poison gas attack in Harasta, explaining that patients suffered from hallucination, accelerated pulse, trouble breathing and, in some cases, suffocation.”
We spoke with Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of SAMS and a critical care specialist in Chicago, about how the organization collected its information and how widespread he thinks the alleged attacks could be.
Syria Deeply: How widespread are these alleged attacks, based on what you know?
Zaher Sahloul: I’ve seen reports of this happening three or four times in last three months and probably more common than that, but these are the reported ones. I’m sure you have others where one or two people have symptoms and they don’t pay attention to it.
SD: From a medical perspective, does it appear to be the same agent used in Ghouta last August?
Sahloul: It’s different. The symptoms are different. One of the main differences is that most of the patients we’re seeing here have dilated eyes or pupils, and in the previous incidents with nerve gas exposure, pupils were constricted. Patients have new symptoms like disillusion and confusion. So we think it’s a different agent.
It’s not easy to figure out. We don’t have confirmation of which agent it could be. To confirm the presence of any agent, you have to have blood samples and clothing samples sent to special labs, which they don’t have in that area of Damascus. [And we just have doctors’ reports from the field.] Based on [the reported] symptoms, we think it could be chlorine gas.
It is deja vu. Since the beginning of the crisis we’ve heard and seen these reports. We’ve reported at least 34 incidents since the major incidents of Aug. 21. We’re worried that this may be the beginning of something bigger, whether in this area or other areas.
SD: Where were the victims of the alleged March 27 attack taken?
Sahloul: Field hospitals in Harasta. Most of the patients receive fluid, sedatives and oxygen, but the hospitals there don’t have anything else to deal with this. Four patients died in this incident. Three died in the field, and one was admitted to an intensive care unit that was equipped with ventilators.
SD: How many doctors are directly reporting information about the alleged attack to SAMS?
Sahloul: At least three. The main physician [reporting to us] is the director of the field hospital [where the fourth victim was treated], and at least two other physicians in the field contributed to these reports. There are nurses and other healthcare professionals working alongside them.
SD: Do the doctors in the field have theories on who might have carried it out?
Sahloul: This report says that anyone affected was living in a rebel-controlled area, which [suggests] another side used the agent.
People are very scared, and the physicians who are reporting this are very frustrated it’s happening. Many people are reluctant to report that it’s happening because they feel the world will not pay attention to what’s happening. People feel like it’s a hopeless situation. It’s difficult to see a report like this after the world felt that chemical weapons would not be used again in Syria.