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Executive Summary for April 9th

We review the key developments in Syria, including a suspected chemical attack on the town of Douma, a missile attack on a Syrian military base in Homs and Jaish al-Islam fighters striking an evacuation deal with the Syrian government.

Published on April 9, 2018 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Suspected Chemical Attack Strikes Last Rebel Holdout in Eastern Ghouta

A suspected gas attack targeted the last remaining rebel pocket in Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, killing scores of people, the Associated Press reported.

Syrian Civil Defense rescue workers said they documented at least 42 fatalities as a result of the poison gas attack on the town of Douma, the AP said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) put the death toll at 80, including 40 people who reportedly died from suffocation.

More than 500 patients being treated in medical facilities in Douma reported symptoms compatible with exposure to poison gas, including difficulty breathing, foaming at the mouth and burning eyes, according to a joint statement released by the Syrian Civil Defense rescue group and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

It was not immediately clear which chemical agent was allegedly used in Saturday’s attack, but SAMS and Syrian Civil Defense, otherwise known as the White Helmets, said that patients smelled strongly of chlorine gas.

Activists and medics blamed the Syrian government for the attack, but Damascus denied allegations, saying they were “fabrications” by the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.

The Syrian government has regularly denied using chemical weapons in Syria, including a suspected chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib that killed scores of people a year ago.

However, President Donald Trump accused the Syrian government of Saturday’s attack and promised there would be a “big price to pay” for resorting to chemical weapons. Trump did not specify how the U.S. would respond to the incident, but Washington launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last year after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

The U.N. Security Council plans to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the chemical attack.

Missile Attack Targets Syrian Base; Russia Blames Israel

A missile attack targeted a Syrian government air base in Homs province early on Monday, killing at least 14 people, including members of Iran-backed paramilitary groups, Reuters reported.

The attack on the T4 air base came hours after President Trump’s “big price to pay” warning for the Douma attack. Syrian state media at first accused the U.S. of Monday’s attack, calling it an American “aggression.” However, U.S. officials later denied responsibility.

“At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting air strikes in Syria,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “However, we continue to closely watch the situation and support the ongoing diplomatic efforts to hold those who use chemical weapons, in Syria and otherwise, accountable.”

Meanwhile, the Russian military and a Syrian military official said on Monday that Israel was behind the attack, according to the Associated Press.

The Russian defense ministry said that two Israeli fighter jets launched eight missiles on the T4 air base from Lebanon’s airspace. Three of the missiles landed in the western part of the air base after Syria shot down five of the eight missiles, the ministry said.

The Lebanese army said in a statement that four Israeli warplanes had violated its airspace on early Monday, flying in the direction of the Syrian border, according to the AP. But the statement did not say whether those jets were responsible for the attack on the T4 air base.

Meanwhile, two unidentified U.S. officials confirmed to NBC News that Israel was behind Monday’s strikes. They also said that Washington was informed of the attack in advance, NBC News reported.

An Israeli spokesperson declined to comment on whether Tel Aviv was behind the incident, according to Reuters.

Israel has carried out a number of attacks in the past against Syrian army positions.

Jaish al-Islam Surrenders to Government Forces

The last rebel group in Eastern Ghouta started leaving the town of Douma on Sunday, in the first phase of a Russian-backed evacuation agreement, Reuters reported.

The Jaish al-Islam rebel group agreed to the evacuation deal on Sunday, hours after the suspected poison gas attack that targeted their stronghold of Douma.

It remains unclear, however, whether the chemical attack itself prompted the group’s decision to evacuate.

Dozens of fighters from Jaish al-Islam and their families were bussed to the northern city of Jarablus after striking an evacuation deal with the Syrian government. Almost simultaneously, hostages freed by Jaish al-Islam arrived at a government-held crossing.

Both developments are part of an evacuation deal brokered on Sunday between the government and rebels, with mediation from Russia. Under the agreement, the Syrian government grants rebels safe exit to northern Syria in return for the release of hundreds of hostages and prisoners held by the group.

The deal also grants an offer of reconciliation for those rebels who wish to stay in Douma.

Citing the Russian RIA news agency, Reuters said that Jaish al-Islam will evacuate Douma in two batches. Syrian state media said the rebels will be evacuated within 48 hours.

The complete evacuation of Jaish al-Islam fighters will transfer complete control over the Eastern Ghouta suburbs to the Syrian government. It will also mark the end of a seven-week-long offensive that has killed at least 1,600 people.

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