Government accuses East Ghouta rebels of shelling capital hours after suspected chlorine attack

AMMAN: The Syrian government is accusing rebel brigades of launching shells into the heart of the Damascus Old City on Monday, hours after the opposition-led Civil Defense accused pro-regime forces of attacking the encircled East Ghouta suburbs with chlorine gas.

Pro-government forces reportedly fired nine shells carrying suspected chlorine gas at a residential area of East Ghouta’s de facto capital of Douma city at dawn Monday, Siraj Mahmoud, spokesman for the local Civil Defense told Syria Direct. The attack injured 21 people, he added.

Hours later, Syrian state media accused East Ghouta-based rebel groups immediately to the east of the capital of launching shells at the Old City of Damascus, reportedly causing multiple civilian deaths and injuries.  

“Armed groups positioned in some areas of the Eastern Ghouta in the Damascus countryside fired a number of shells on the [Damascus] neighborhood of Bab Touma...claiming the lives of nine civilians and injuring 21 others,” SANA reported Monday.

Children are given oxygen at a hospital in Douma on Monday. Photo courtesy of Douma Medical Office.

Damascus-based news outlets also reported rebel shelling on Monday.

“Nine civilians were killed and more than 20 injured after mortar shells fell on the neighborhoods of Old Damascus,” Damascus-based news site Mortar Shell Diaries reported via its Facebook page Monday.

Syrian government forces have encircled East Ghouta, home to an estimated 400,000 people, since 2013.

Last May, the pocket became part of a de-escalation deal brokered by Iran and Russia that established four ceasefire zones across the country.

Despite its inclusion in the deal, East Ghouta is facing a deadly assault by Syrian government troops and allied forces within a government offensive that began on December 29.

The current offensive followed a rebel attack on a government-held armored vehicles base located at the western edge of East Ghouta in late November. Since then, rebel and government forces have clashed intermittently as airstrikes and artillery fire show no sign of abating.

Pro-government bombings have left more than 180 dead in East Ghouta since the start of this year.

Symptoms point to chlorine

On Monday, 21 civilians suffering from symptoms including shortness of breath, bronchial irritation, red eyes and coughing were received at the Damascus Countryside Specialized Hospital in Douma, the director of the hospital’s emergency care department, Muwafiq Haroun, told Syria Direct on Monday. The injured included six women and seven children.

“The patients described a very strong smell similar to that of chlorine” at the location in Douma where they were injured, Haroun said.

Doctors on duty at Haroun’s hospital noticed a similar odor when patients arrived, he said, “so they removed [patients’] clothing and put them on oxygen.”

“All responded to the treatment,” he added.

Although the symptoms pointed to chlorine gas exposure, Haroun says medical personnel in East Ghouta lack the necessary equipment to confirm a chemical agent was present in the attack.

“We cannot be sure without analysis that requires specialized labs,” he said.

Patients receive treatment at a hospital in Douma on Monday. Photo courtesy of Douma Medical Office.  

Monday’s alleged chlorine attack is the second suspected chemical weapon attack in the rebel-controlled enclave in just over a week.

On January 13, five women and one child were treated for symptoms consistent with chemical exposure following a similar, early morning attack on Douma city, reported the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organization, a federation of medical and humanitarian groups. The organization did not specify a perpetrator.

‘I felt I was going to die’

Abu Ahmad, a 30-year-old Douma resident, was sitting in front of his home early Monday morning when he saw shells fall nearby.

Abu Ahmad says he rushed the bomb site, where he immediately noticed “a very sharp smell and then lost consciousness for a moment.”

“I felt I was going to die right there, from the shortness of breath that hit me,” he said. Abu Ahmad says his condition improved following treatment at the Specialized Hospital in Douma.  

The Syrian government has repeatedly used chemical weapons in attacks on opposition-held areas, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, whose latest report, released last September, notes the use of weaponized chlorine in East Ghouta.

“These attacks constitute clear violations of international humanitarian law and the Convention on Chemical Weapons,” the report says.

The Syrian Arab Republic ratified the convention in 2013 following a sarin gas attack on opposition-held neighborhoods in East and West Ghouta that killed at least 1,400 people.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.