Ten years ago, on this very day, Eastern Ghouta awoke to the sound of gasping breaths and screams mingled with the eerie silence of terror. Behind closed doors, some fought desperately against death while others succumbed quietly, but also in agony.
If there's one event that illustrates the brutality of the Syrian regime throughout the years of the revolution, it's undoubtedly the Ghouta massacre near the capital, Damascus. On this tenth anniversary, this tragic incident serves as a stark testament to Bashar al-Assad's evasion of accountability for his heinous crimes, exacerbated by a notable lack of international action.
Eastern Ghouta, situated to the east and south of Damascus was among the first areas to rise against the Assad regime following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011. It later became a major stronghold of the Syrian opposition on the outskirts of the capital. Over time, the region underwent a series of transformations, evolving from peaceful protests in 2011 to armed resistance in early 2012. The Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups emerged to safeguard peaceful demonstrations and residential neighbourhoods from the brutality of the regime's military and security branches.
For close to five years, the regime, aided by its allies, laid siege to Eastern Ghouta. Throughout this period, the regime resorted to a range of repressive tactics and war crimes to compel the region's submission. This included tactics such as starvation, bans on medical evacuations, chemical attacks, and shelling.
Throughout the course of the revolution, Ghouta emerged as a unique example of an alternative form of local governance in contrast to the traditional state institutions. Various civil actors, including local councils, civil society organizations, peaceful activists, and medical professionals, carried out a form of governance alongside armed factions.
On the morning of August 21, 2013, units from the 155th Brigade of the regime's forces, stationed in the Qalamoun area near Damascus, launched a barrage of surface-to-surface missiles carrying sarin gas on the residents of Eastern Ghouta and most of al-Moadamiyah in Western Ghouta. This assault took place at 2:31 AM local time. An hour later, additional missiles struck the eastern side of Zamalka city. At 2:40 AM, the town of Ain Tarma came under fire with rockets hitting the Zeiniah area. The attacks continued until 5:21 AM, with rockets landing between Zamalka and Arbin, relentlessly targeting Eastern Ghouta. These rocket launches coincided with and followed the chemical attacks, deliberately obstructing the movement of medical teams as they sought to aid the wounded.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the death toll on that day reached 1,144 individuals–a staggering number, even compared to previous massacres committed by the regime through the use of conventional weaponry. Among them were 201 women, 107 children, and 25 opposition fighters—all subjected to suffocation. Additionally, 5,935 people exhibited symptoms of respiratory distress and choking. Survivors suffered from afflictions ranging from eye redness and itching to loss of consciousness, muscle spasms, and foaming at the mouth. This was the deadliest chemical attack in the world since Saddam Hussein's chemical attack against Kurds in Halabja in 1988.
The rockets utilized in the attack were equipped with chemical warheads, characterized by their silence upon explosion and their non-destructive impact on structures. Instead, their effect involved suffocating victims and damaging nerves.
The horrifying scenes from a decade ago remain etched in memory, children struggling for their last breaths, fathers overwhelmed with helplessness. The child incredulously yells: "Am I alive?... Am I alive?". A father urges his choking child to hold on to life, saying: "My son, get up, get up, my son, get up", while the child suffocates in his trembling hands.
In the aftermath of the attack, thousands of bodies lay side by side, identified only by numbers, and laid to rest in mass graves.
The Syrian Opposition’s Coalition accused the Assad regime of committing the massacre, citing it as glaring evidence of Assad's weakening control. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch confirmed the regime's involvement in the Ghouta massacre two weeks following the attack.
The Guardian newspaper published a French intelligence report on September 3, 2013, which explicitly attributed responsibility for the attack to Assad’s regime forces. The report included satellite images showing rockets being launched from regime positions, as well as verification of forty-seven videos from the attack by French medical professionals.
A subsequent report from the United Nations Inspection Commission, released on September 16, 2013, refrained from ascribing the attack to any specific party. It described the attack as a serious crime and emphasized the need to "bring those responsible to justice as soon as possible." The report outlined that the attack, executed through ground-to-ground missiles between 2:00 AM and 5:00 AM, resulted in a significant loss of life.
The attack occurred a year after President Barack Obama warned Bashar al-Assad against using chemical weapons. Obama's statement on August 20, 2012, marked the use of such weapons as a "red line" that carried serious repercussions. He reiterated in April 2013 that the use of these weapons would "change the rules of the game."
After the attack, Obama initially sought Congressional approval for limited military intervention. However, he later retreated from the idea of conducting a strike against Assad’s forces, reflecting the international community's hypocrisy towards the Syrian cause. Weeks after the chemical massacre, a deal was reached in Geneva between the US and Russia. As part of this agreement, Syria committed to joining the Chemical Weapons Convention and dismantling its chemical arsenal.
In exchange, the US halted its campaign for military intervention against Damascus. Obama's "red lines" were withdrawn, and the regime and its allies were given the green light to continue using conventional weapons against the Syrian people. Meanwhile, the Assad regime agreed to the Russian initiative, which mandated international supervision of its chemical weapons arsenal for eventual dismantling. This deal later took the form of UN Security Council Resolution 2118, with Article 15 underscoring the obligation to "hold individuals accountable for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic." In case of non-compliance, Article 21 outlined measures that could be taken under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
This granted Assad and his allies the latitude to employ all available weaponry apart from chemical arms against Syrians. Later, it would be revealed that Russia and Assad did not fully adhere to the agreement and continued carrying out chemical attacks on Syrian soil. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) documented some of these assaults in areas controlled by opposition forces.
The international community appeared to shift focus from the substantial number of victims and casualties. Instead, it centred its attention on disarming Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons, treating it as though it were a nuclear threat. Notably, chemical weapons are relatively inexpensive to clandestinely produce and are equipped with raw materials that are hard to detect. As a result, any terrorist organization can easily manufacture and transport these weapons of mass destruction.
In the face of international condemnations and UN investigations aimed at holding the perpetrators accountable, leaders of countries who initially condemned the massacre now seek opportunities to re-engage with Assad, aiming to re-integrate him into both regional and global diplomatic spheres.
An overwhelming amount of evidence unequivocally implicates the Assad-led Syrian regime in the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Media outlets reported that intelligence agencies from various Western countries reached the conclusion that the Syrian regime was responsible for deploying toxic sarin gas in Ghouta. These conclusions were corroborated by intelligence reports from France and Germany.
The German intelligence report unveiled details of communication between a senior Hezbollah official and the Iranian embassy in Beirut. During these exchanges, the Hezbollah official explicitly implicated Bashar al-Assad in the attack, suggesting he was becoming unstable. Last year, the US Department of State announced an entry ban for three military officials associated with the Syrian regime who were involved in the gas attack on Eastern Ghouta. The list included Brigadier General Adnan Abood Haloua, Major General Ghassan Ahmed Ghannam, and Major General Joudat Salibi Mawas, along with their immediate family members.
Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs vehemently dismissed reports of another chemical attack in Douma, an opposition-controlled city in Eastern Ghouta. Russian news agencies quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as stating that allegations of the chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta aimed to "shield terrorists and justify external use of force."
On its part, the Syrian regime denied any involvement in the attack, placing blame on the opposition. The regime claimed to have uncovered chemical weapons in tunnels under the control of armed opposition in the suburb of Jobar. However, UN investigators contradicted this assertion, affirming that the chemical weapons employed in the Ghouta area originated from Syrian regime stockpiles. Moreover, the regime went beyond mere blame-shifting, accusing the opposition of abducting men and children from villages in Latakia and forcibly transporting them to Ghouta for use in chemical attacks. This narrative left even Bouthaina Shaaban, a close advisor to the Presidential Palace, perplexed and taken aback, just days after the attack.
It's important to highlight that the massacre occurred merely three days after the arrival of an international observer mission in Damascus. It happened just a short distance from where the observers were staying. Despite this horrifying incident, the global community failed to bring Bashar al-Assad and the responsible individuals to justice on the international stage, largely due to Moscow's repeated use of its veto power to shield the regime. In fact, Russia utilized its veto power a total of twelve times to thwart sanctions directed at the Syrian government, six of which pertained to chemical weapon attacks.
To date, there has been no substantial action from the international community or human rights organizations to hold the Assad regime accountable.
Efforts have been made on the global stage to address the issue of impunity in the use of chemical weapons. One notable initiative is the "International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons", launched in Paris on January 23, 2018. This partnership includes 40 countries and the European Union, who all aim to enhance international mechanisms against the proliferation of chemical weapons. Additionally, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons suspended Syria's membership in April 2021. However, these endeavours appear insufficient compared to the significant efforts by witness groups and non-governmental organizations.
In recent years, non-governmental organizations have taken diverse approaches to address this challenge. Collaborating with international entities, Syrian civil society organizations have submitted complaints about chemical weapon use to European judicial bodies, leveraging their jurisdiction in certain cases, such as in Sweden, Germany, and France. These complaints have been fortified with detailed information and compelling evidence relating to the cases at hand.
It must be noted that non-governmental efforts could not have been possible without the dedication of survivors and the families of victims. Simultaneously, there has been a pushback against denialist narratives through initiatives such as the ‘Don't Suffocate Truth’ campaign. The movement is driven by activists, survivors, and witnesses of chemical weapon attacks, who aim to counter the extensive propaganda propagated by the regime and its allies.
Furthermore, the ‘Association of Victims of Chemical Weapons’ was established to underscore the determination of survivors and witnesses to assert their rights despite prevailing challenges and unfavourable international circumstances.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria remains a tool for justice at the disposal of the international community, filled with information, reports, and international resolutions. However, Western nations appear reluctant to exert great efforts towards addressing the Syrian crisis.
We continue to counter the denial of the truth behind this massacre. We strive to document evidence that establishes direct criminal responsibility for those who oversaw or participated in the chemical attack. This effort aims to bring these individuals to justice while acknowledging the intricate nature of a process that may span years.
However, it is imperative that the international community devise genuine mechanisms to protect witnesses who hold evidence about the chemical massacre. The regime's control over affected areas is significant, especially considering that families of victims and witnesses to the chemical attack are either currently in areas under the regime’s control or have been displaced, leaving their families behind at the mercy of the regime. Since then, the regime has spared no effort in intimidating them, aiming to silence their voices and prevent them from communicating with investigation committees, as well as pressuring medical and rescue personnel.
In contrast to the absence of such mechanisms, several nations increasingly seek to normalize relations with the Assad regime, leaving survivors and witnesses distressed as they await investigation after investigation, report after report. There's no clear pathway or mechanism to leverage the wealth of information and reports produced by the five investigation committees that have examined chemical weapons in Syria over the years.
The international community's failure to address the massacre and hold culprits accountable only led to the partial removal of the chemical weapons arsenal, worsening the ongoing tragedy for the Syrian people.
Furthermore, following the Ghouta massacre, the Assad regime did not cease using chemical weapons and resumed their use on numerous occasions. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Syria experienced 222 chemical weapon attacks from January 23, 2012, to August 20, 2021. The Ghouta chemical attack was number 32. Almost 98% of these attacks were attributed to the Syrian regime, while around 2% were linked to ISIS. The report also outlined the attacks' distribution by year and province.
Survivors of the nerve gas attack in Ghouta carry its memory, determined not to forget.
As for the martyrs, a decade ago, they laid down for their final night, unaware they were about to face the Assad regime's largest chemical massacre. That night was unlike any other—poison tainted the air, souls reached for the sky, and death itself seemed to weep.
And yet, the efforts of criminals to erase their memory will always be an exercise in futility.