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Autopsies Confirm Chemical Weapons Used In Syria Gas Attack

Turkish doctors found the effects of nerve agents in victims.

06/04/2017 6:30 PM AEST | Updated 06/04/2017 9:50 PM AEST
Stringer . / Reuters

A Turkish autopsy of victims of the deadliest chemical weapons attack in Syria since 2013 has confirmed chemical weapons were used in relation to the deaths of more than 70 civilians on Tuesday.

The Turkish government confirmed on Thursday that post mortems carried out on individuals who were caught in the gas attack launched on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in the Idleb province proved chemical nerve agents had been used. Thirty-two victims of the attack were transported into Turkey to seek medical attention, according to Reuters.

WARNING: This piece includes graphic images.

While Syrian forces are suspected to be behind the attack, Russian officials said on Wednesday they do not believe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or rebel forces supporting him were responsible.

Opposed to that, the U.S. Government believes the chemical agent sarin was used in the attack and it was "almost certainly" carried out by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, a U.S. Government source told Reuters.

Sarin is a colourless, odourless liquid and is generally considered to be a weapon of mass destruction. Production and stockpiling of sarin was outlawed in 1997.

In the hours following the attack, one of the medical clinics treating victims was hit by an airstrike. Medics, activists and witnesses on the ground said that the air strikes caused people to suffocate, while others spasmed, went pale and gasped for air, according to British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights sources.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed in a statement released on Tuesday the symptoms of those affected by the attack appear to show signs the chemicals used included deadly nerve agents banned by international law.

"The likelihood of exposure to a chemical attack is amplified by an apparent lack of external injuries reported in cases showing a rapid onset of similar symptoms, including acute respiratory distress as the main cause of death. Some cases appear to show additional signs consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents," the statement read.

Meanwhile, international leaders have condemned the attack, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop calling for an independent, international investigation into the attack on Wednesday.

"If the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, as is being alleged, that constitutes a war crime. It constitutes a shocking war crime," Turnbull told Tasmanian radio 7AD.

"The Assad regime should abide by the laws of armed conflict and there should be and will be, I've no doubt, a full investigation into the circumstances of what appears to, well what has been, appears to be, a horrendous use of chemical weapons which we condemn."

US Vice-President Mike Pence also denounced the attack, saying "all options are on the table" when it comes to his government's response.

"I know the president and I and our entire administration condemn this chemical attack in Syria in the strongest possible terms... It cannot be tolerated," he told Fox News US.

Earlier in the day, US President Donald Trump said his attitude towards Syria changed with the attack, saying it had a "big impact" on him.

"I like to think of myself as a very flexible person... I don't have to have one specific way and if the world changes, I go the same way," he said at a press conference on Wednesday.

"I do change. And I am flexible. and I'm proud of that flexibility. And I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I've been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn't get any worse than that. And I have that flexibility, and it's very, very possible, and I will tell you, it's already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much."

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The President's comments also come as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued a stark criticism of the international response to the attack, asking the U.N. Security Council, "How many more children have to die before Russia cares?"

"Time and time again, Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus. Time and time again, without any factual basis, Russia attempts to place blame on others," she said.

"The truth is that Assad, Russia, and Iran have no interest in peace. There are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action."

Haley gave her speech at an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S., Britain and France proposed a draft resolution that blames Assad for the attack. Despite Haley's comments, it's unclear whether the U.S. will go beyond condemnations in terms of taking action against Assad or pressuring Russia to use its influence to push for a peace process in Syria.

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Experts on the Syrian crisis have also given their perspectives on the attack, with one leading chemical weapons expert saying it's clear the Assad Regime was responsible.

Paul Walker of the non-profit NGO Green Cross International believes if forensic evidence from a fact-finding mission launched into the attack does confirm that, the political repercussions could be endless.

"I think at this point we have to assume the worst, and the forensic evidence from the fact-finding mission will prove that one way or the other in the next couple of weeks," he said.

"If it does result in a forensic proof that, in fact,the Syrians attacked in the Idlib province with undeclared Sarin agent, there will be all sorts of hell to pay really, political hell to pay, from the OPW and the UN Security Council in the very near future."

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Elise Baker, the lead Syria researcher for Physicians for Human Rights, joined him in the accusation against the Assad Regime, saying the attack looks like another targeted effort towards civilians.

"This is part of a broader pattern we've seen throughout the conflict of Syrian government forces being willing to use any method of warfare against their own people," Baker told The Huffington Post.

"We know the Syrian government was responsible for nerve agent attacks in Damascus suburbs in 2013, and they've continued to use chemical weapons since then," she added, noting an independent investigation of Tuesday's events will still be necessary to fully verify responsibility.

"We also know this attack was carried out with airstrikes," she continued. "The only forces that have aircrafts are the Syrian government, Russian forces and the U.S.-led international coalition, and of those three parties, the only ones we know who were responsible for chemical weapons attacks in the past are Syrian authorities ... ISIS [the so-called Islamic-State] has been responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but ISIS is not located in this area."

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