BEIRUT — US President Donald Trump warned Sunday of a “big price to pay” in Syria after a suspected chemical attack on the last rebel-held town in Eastern Ghouta left scores dead and injured.
Dozens of Syrians were killed and hundreds of others were affected by the attack on Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, rescue workers and an aid group said Sunday.
Anti-government activists claimed Syrian military helicopters dropped barrel bombs filled with chemicals on the town on Saturday night, suffocating some residents and sending others into violent convulsions.
Graphic footage shot by rescuers and activists show people — including children — dead and injured, some ghostly white and foaming at the mouth in makeshift medical centers. Others were found suffocated in their homes, according to first responders.
On Sunday the Syrian government and Russia, its key ally, vehemently denied involvement and accused rebels in Douma of fabricating the chemical attack claims in order to hinder the army’s advances and provoke international military intervention.
Trump on Sunday described the attack as “SICK” and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad.
“Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!”
Trump also blamed his predecessor for failing to act on previous chemical attacks in Syria.
“If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!” Trump tweeted.
Saturday’s attack occurred almost a year to the day after the United States struck a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The State Department described the incident in Douma as “horrifying” and said that if the use of chemical agents in the attack was confirmed, it would “demand an immediate response by the international community.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement Sunday that “any use of chemical weapons, if confirmed, is abhorrent, and requires a thorough investigation.”
At least 48 people died and 500 others displayed symptoms similar to exposure to “toxic gas” in the Douma area on Saturday, said the White Helmets rescue group and the Syrian American Medical Society, a charity, in a joint statement on Sunday.
Other groups have announced varying death tolls in the wake of the attack. CNN could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage or the reports.
Following the attack on Saturday night, doctors in Eastern Ghouta saw patients convulsing and some who appeared to be paralyzed and unresponsive, an official with the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) told CNN.
The official, who asked to be identified as Dr. Jad and is in touch with local doctors, said one of the affected areas was the residential area of Masaken, where hundreds of civilians reside in underground shelters.
State TV: Deal reached to evacuate Douma rebels
The attack comes as Syrian forces are on the verge of recapturing Douma, the last town held by rebels in Eastern Ghouta, following a brutal offensive launched in mid-February.
On Sunday, Syrian state TV reported that the government had reached an agreement with Jaish al-Islam, the last remaining rebel group in Douma, to leave the enclave in the next 48 hours.
As part of the agreement, the group’s fighters would be transported to Jarablus in northern Syria. In exchange, the rebels would release all prisoners they are holding in Douma.
Jaish Al-Islam didn’t immediately respond to CNN’s request for confirmation.
Talks between Russia and the rebel group collapsed on Friday. The Syrian government later resumed airstrikes in the rebel-held town, killing scores of people. Rebels responded with mortar attacks on Damascus, killing at least 12 people.
Sources close to the Syrian army told CNN that the military had advanced nearly a kilometer into the Douma area on Saturday.
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more wounded in the offensive on Eastern Ghouta, which was once home to an estimated 400,000.
Around 130,000 people have left the enclave in the past month, according to the United Nations. Of these, 83,000 have gone to eight collective shelters in government-controlled areas on the outskirts of Damascus.
Many have also fled to Idlib in the northwest, the largest remaining rebel-held area in the country.
Turkey, which earlier this year launched its own military offensive against Kurdish groups in Afrin, northern Syria, said in a statement Sunday that countries with leverage over the Syrian regime had an obligation to help “prevent future war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.”
Underground weapons factory?
The Syrian regime has long accused rebel groups of launching chemical attacks in the country, and last week the Syrian military took CNN to what it claimed was an underground weapons factory belonging to rebels in Eastern Ghouta. Inside they showed off chemicals, fuses and mortar casings they said were used by rebels to manufacture weapons.
Government officials also showed CNN a handwritten manual detailing instructions for how to build incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus munitions, amongst other things. Officials say the manual was left behind by the rebels.
At another site, the military showed an underground storage facility they say belonged to the rebels inside a civilian area. The facility included an SA-5 surface-to-air missile.
CNN could not independently verify these claims.
One year after Khan Sheikhoun
The Syrian regime has been accused many times of turning chemical weapons on its people over the course of the war.
In April 2017, more than 80 people were killed in a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
That attack prompted the United States to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase.
A joint report from the United Nations and international chemical weapons inspectors last October determined that Assad’s government was responsible for the attack. Damascus denied it was behind the attack and has repeatedly denied it has any chemical weapons.
Saturday’s attack comes amid uncertainty about what role, if any, the US will play in Syria in the future.
The US has approximately 2,000 troops in Syria, where they advise local forces fighting ISIS. President Trump has said he wants to bring American troops home, but last week agreed to keep them in Syria for the short-term to help defeat the terror group.