In the early hours of 4 April 2017, an air strike was carried out on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s Idlib province, in an attack that could be a defining moment in the six-year civil war. Following the strike, residents reported smelling a strange odour and finding whole families dead in their beds. Photos and videos appeared on social media showing survivors with symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a nerve agent, including pinpoint pupils, breathlessness, convulsions and, in severe cases, foaming at the mouth.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), whose doctors treated some of the victims, said both a nerve agent and chlorine appeared to have been used. In a statement, MSF said: ‘Victims smelled of bleach, suggesting they had been exposed to chlorine. These reports strongly suggest that victims of the attack on Khan Sheikhoun were exposed to at least two different chemical agents.’
Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert, told the Guardian newspaper, “It is possible it’s sarin but also possible it could be something else, or a mix of things. The key thing I’m confident of here is that a material has been deliberately dispersed in order to cause harm.”
Idlib Health Directorate reported that at least 84 people had been killed, including 33 children and 18 women. Around 300 others were being treated in hospitals in Idlib province and neighbouring Turkey. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated the death toll at 86 and said it was likely to rise, with many of the injured in a serious condition.
Condemnation of the deadly attack mounted over the following days, with the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), European Union (EU) and Turkey pointing fingers at the Syrian government. However, the Syrian government denied any involvement, saying that it handed over its arsenal of chemical weapons after the Ghouta attack in 2013. Russia, a key Syrian ally, claimed that the deaths resulted from government air strikes hitting a ‘terrorist’ chemical weapons factory in Khan Sheikhoun. However, the Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen, the first Western journalist to visit the site, reported that the silos and warehouse near where the missile had hit were nothing but “abandoned spaces and half-destroyed silos reeking of leftover grain and animal manure”.
American President Donald Trump denounced the attack as an “affront to humanity” and an act that “cannot be ignored by the civilized world”. He added, “My attitude toward Syria and al-Assad has changed very much … You’re now talking about a whole different level.” He also took the opportunity to lay some of the blame on his predecessor, Barack Obama. When asked whether such an attack crossed a red line, a reference to Obama’s previously drawn red line that al-Assad has now crossed, Trump responded that such an attack crossed many red lines.
According to the New York Times, the president made the decision to retaliate on 6 April 2017, after the generals of his National Security Council ‘made the case that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had to learn there was a price to pay’ . That night, on the president’s orders, the US military launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat airbase in western Syria, from which the planes carrying the chemical weapons originated.
It was the first time an American administration had taken military action against the Syrian regime, representing a major escalation of American military involvement in the Middle East in the post-Obama era. According to US Defence Secretary James Mattis, the strike sent a strong message to the Syrian regime, which will be ill-advised to use chemical weapons again. Mattis concluded that the damage was substantial, destroying 20 per cent of Syria’s operational aircraft and incapacitating the airbase.
It took al-Assad almost ten days to comment on the chemical attack and the American military response. On 13 April 2017, he spoke to the news agency AFP in Damascus, saying that the ‘alleged’ chemical attack on Idlib was a “100 per cent fabrication” used to justify an American strike on Syria. He reiterated that the Syrian government had handed over its stockpile of chemical weapons in 2013, in accordance with the Russian-American agreement. He emphasized that Damascus would only accept an “impartial investigation” into the incident. “Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack,” he said.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) heard several strong statements when it met to discuss the attack. Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, signalled on 12 April 2017 that the Trump administration wanted to work with Russia to put an end to the war in Syria. This was followed by a draft resolution sponsored mainly by the governments of the US, France and Britain and intended to strengthen the ability of international investigators, who were already authorized by the UNSC, to look more closely at the details of the flight logs and the names of the commanders in charge of air operations on 4 April 2017, the day of the attack. The draft resolution won only ten votes. Russia used its veto power for the eighth time on a Syria resolution at the UNSC and China abstained.
On 19 April 2017, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said that two OPCW-designated laboratories had analyzed bio-medical samples collected from three victims during their post-mortems and from seven survivors, and the results indicated that the victims were exposed to sarin gas or a sarin-like substance. “While further details of the laboratory analyses will follow, the analytical results already obtained are incontrovertible,” said OPCW head Ahmet Üzümcü.
Moreover, a source who preferred to remain anonymous, told CNN that the Pentagon had intercepted Syrian regime communications in which military sources discussed preparations for the attack. He emphasized that the US had no prior knowledge of the attack, but that officials had found the communications during a review of the intelligence gathered that day.
On 26 April 2017, a declassified French intelligence report said that the method of the attack bore ‘the signature of the regime’ and pointed to Syrian responsibility. According to the intelligence, the sarin used in the bombing came from al-Assad’s stockpiles. Samples from the scene contained chemical compounds that were a hallmark of al-Assad’s sarin manufacturing process and matched samples collected from the site of a 2013 attack on the town of Saraqeb, which was also linked to the regime, the report said. It concluded that the sarin was delivered using aerial munitions, adding weight to the international consensus that the regime was responsible for the massacre, not rebel forces, who do not possess an air force.
“We know, from a certain source, that the process of fabrication of the samples taken is typical of the method developed in Syrian laboratories,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters after presenting the findings to the French cabinet. “This method is the signature of the regime and it is what enables us to establish the responsibility of the attack. We know because we kept samples from previous attacks that we were able to use for comparison.”
The conclusions of the French report further undermined the contradictory allegations by Moscow and Damascus, which ranged from claiming the attack never happened to blaming a government air strike on a warehouse where rebels had allegedly stockpiled sarin.