Throughout the more than four years of civil war in Syria, both the Syrian government and the Islamic State have been accused of using chemical weapons against civilians.
Most recently, ISIS was accused of using chemical weapons in Marea, an area in the Aleppo province of the country’s north. Testimony from doctors and witnesses suggest that ISIS used a chemical agent – the effects of which are consistent with mustard gas – when it launched an hours-long attack on the town two weeks ago, as reported by The Guardian.
The Syrian government, which claims to have given up its chemical weapons stockpile, was also accused of using chemical weapons on a number of occasions, including during a 2013 Sarin gas attack on the rebel-controlled town of Ghouta.
Syria Deeply spoke to Pablo Marco Blanco, Middle East program manager for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), about the recent allegations of mustard gas use and the broader challenges the organization faces operating in Syria.
Syria Deeply: What is the impact on Syrian civilians caught between the Syrian government and ISIS as both of them have been accused of using chemical weapons?
Pablo Marco Blanco: Well, if we look at overall figures of civilians being killed or wounded now in Syria, it is clear to everyone that most of the people aren’t killed directly by clashes. They are killed by the impact of bombings. This is massive in Aleppo. This keeps happening on a daily basis. In the past few months, 11 hospitals have been attacked or destroyed in the area.
Having said that, the alleged use of chemical weapons – we haven’t confirmed that yet – this is very much worrying for us. Not only because of the catastrophic effects, but especially because it means the moral taboo about chemical weapons is being broken in Syria. Those who use chemical weapons could kill industrial numbers of people. Once the taboo is broken, that could happen. People could be willing to use chemical weapons in a way that could kill hundreds of thousands.
Syria Deeply: Why has that attack not been confirmed at this point?
Pablo Marco Blanco: We couldn’t confirm the attack. We have confirmed that there have been reports of symptoms that are consistent with the use of chemical weapons. We don’t have a staff in Marea, but what the victims and witnesses are telling us is very worrying.
The only way to prove it is through laboratory tests. This hasn’t been done yet. We haven’t been able to do it. Our first interest is to ensure that we can keep working and accessing patients in Syria.
Syria Deeply: How does MSF deal with such attacks, if they do indeed take place?
Pablo Marco Blanco: In all of our facilities, we have a contingency plan as part of protocol for dealing with victims that have symptoms consistent with chemical weapons use. It is about how to ensure that the patients and staff are protected. In the case of the last alleged attack, symptoms were very consistent with the use of mustard gas. There is little we can do in a hospital. It all depends on the kind of chemical agent that has been used. With mustard gas, the patient needs intensive care – unfortunately none of the hospitals in or near Aleppo have this capacity.
Syria Deeply: What challenges does your organization face in rebel-controlled areas?
Pablo Marco Blanco: We face very many challenges. Working in Aleppo is one of the most challenging areas we face. Working in Syria is one of the biggest challenges in general that our organization faces. The area is obviously a high area of violence – there is always a risk of being bombed, attacked or in the middle of fighting. Now of course, the risk of kidnapping is very high, which is why we don’t have an international staff in Syria. All of the duties are being carried out by Syrian staff – they’re doing a great job. But nonetheless, most of the Syrian medical staff has left the country or are planning to leave the country. People are motivated and working very hard, but they don’t always have the experience or training to deal with some of the situations.
None of our centers have been targeted yet. What is happening to us on a daily basis is that we also support many facilities and hospitals that are run by Syrians and they are being targeted. One of the hospitals we support was completely destroyed by barrel bombs in Aleppo three months ago.
Syria Deeply: How do you see the international community’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria?
Pablo Marco Blanco: It’s a difficult question. I wouldn’t dare to propose a solution when so many people and organizations are working on a political solution. It is out of the scope of our work as doctors.
On a practical level, what we see now is that most of the facilities we’re working with now are not supplied or ready to deal with a huge influx of patients. Making that happen is a very practical medical step to dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The use of chemical weapons is opening the door to hell and we’re willing to do all that is in our hands to stop this.
Top Photo: Syrian opposition forces control Aleppo, where ISIS has been accused of using mustard gas in the nearby town of Marea. (Associated Press/Manu Brabo)