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Critics sceptical of Syrian government allegations of Aleppo chemical attack

Bashar al-Assad's opponents have cast doubts on the government's claims that chlorine may have been used by rebels on Saturday
Syrian state news agency SANA reported 107 people were affected by a 'toxic gas' during rebel shelling in northwestern Aleppo (AFP)

The suburban town of al-Zahraa, just northwest of Aleppo, remains the last frontline between armed Syrian opposition groups and the army of President Bashar al-Assad in the area.

Since Aleppo was retaken by pro-government forces in December 2016, mortar shells fired by rebels have become a part of the day-to-day lives of residents on the outskirts of the city.

On Saturday evening, around 7pm local time, mortars began falling on the mainly residential neighbourhoods of al-Zahraa, Khalidiya and al-Nil Street, coming from rebel positions in al-Lyramon, located directly west of Aleppo city.

But this time, things were different, according to pro-Assad news outlets, which said rebels had carried out a chemical attack - with initial reports claiming the rebels had used chlorine.

As the report spread on Sunday, rebels denied using chemical weapons, however.

Some current and former Aleppo residents, meanwhile, have cast doubts on the government’s version of events.

Scores hospitalised

According to Syria's state news agency SANA, some 107 people were hospitalised in Aleppo after opposition groups fired unspecified “toxic gases” at the three civilian neighbourhoods.

The shelling reportedly spread a strong stench in the area and caused breathing problems among residents, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Several pro-government reporters in Aleppo, including Kinana Alloush, a Sama TV correspondent, took to Facebook to live-stream the situation at local hospitals in the aftermath of the alleged chemical attack.

With medical staff and men in military uniforms bustling in the background behind her, Alloush interviewed doctors at the Aleppo University hospital about the situation.

“Injured (victims) are flooding into the hospital, the majority of them with symptoms of breathing chemical gases. It was the terrorists,” one doctor told her.

'We always hear explosions like this, but this time we smelled something like tear gas or a chemical, I don't know'

- Aleppo University hospital patient

A patient described an unusual smell after the explosion.

“We always hear explosions like this, but this time we smelled something like tear gas or a chemical. I don't know,” he told Alloush. “It was a chemical. We were all coughing and tearing up, but my son here is the one who got badly affected.”

Meanwhile, a number of Russian media outlets quickly picked up the Syrian reports. Quoting SANA, Sputnik news agency initially reported that 12 people had died due to chlorine, only to later remove any mention of fatalities from its article.

A stalwart Assad ally, Russia called on the international community to condemn the attack.

The reported chemical attack also prompted the Syrian government to blame Western countries for providing aid to militant groups, as it sent a letter to the United Nations calling on the UN Security Council to “immediately and strongly condemn these terrorist crimes and to shoulder its responsibilities ... through taking deterrent, immediate and punitive measures against the states and regimes which support and fund terrorism".

'I don't know if that was true or not'

Meanwhile, the National Front for Liberation rebel coalition, which still operates in the Aleppo countryside, denied using chemical weapons.

Both rebels and the government have blamed each other for chemical attacks and other war crimes throughout the seven-year war, with each side accusing the other of creating fake narratives and carrying out false-flag operations.

Speaking to Middle East Eye, some residents of the Aleppo areas reportedly hit on Saturday reacted with incredulity to the reports.

Abd al-Khaleq, a resident of al-Zahraa, told MEE that he was in a coffee shop with his friends on Saturday and only came home late in the evening.

“I couldn’t believe the news. I passed by the [Aleppo] University Hospital on the way home and things were normal - vehicles and people were circulating like usual,” he said.

“Yes, we have mortar attacks frequently, but no such thing happened yesterday,” al-Khaleq said. “My family, who was in the house all day, said they heard explosions in the distance like usual, but that nothing major had occurred.”

National Liberation Front rebels remain active in the countryside of Aleppo (AFP)

Ahmad is a resident of the al-Souq al-Mahali neighbourhood directly adjacent to al-Zahraa, which lies closer to the frontline between pro-government forces and rebel groups.

He also said he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. “I heard a few far-away mortar explosions, but nothing else major,” he told MEE.

“We were shocked to hear about a chlorine gas attack on TV. We didn’t see such a thing in our area, and I must say I don't know if that was true or not.”

Ambiguous symptoms?

Observers were all the more wary of believing government accounts, as videos circulating of the victims of the attack did not appear to exhibit the usual symptoms of exposure to deadly chemical weapons.

In the videos shared by Alloush, the Sama TV reporter, a number of patients were seen with medical ventilators. Some others were shown coughing.

But none of the patients appeared to be suffering from severe coughs, teary or irritated eyes, or foaming at the mouth, in contrast to footage of a number of attacks by government forces that both the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have concluded involved toxic substances such as chlorine.

Dr Hamza al-Khatib, the former director of Al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, told MEE that he treated a number patients following deadly chemical attacks in the city in 2016.

What I think might have happened is that there was an attack involving cleaning products ... but it is not what I - as someone who treated patients for chlorine exposure - would call a chemical attack

- Dr. Hamza al-Khatib

“Even though I am not in Aleppo and can't fully confirm whether that attack was true or not, my personal experience makes me completely doubt the regime's theory,” Khatib said.

Khatib pointed out that the footage from Saturday did not show the doctors handling the patients with gloves, as would be necessary to prevent being contaminated themselves in the event of an attack involving chlorine or sarin gas.

The footage also did not show the doctors dousing the patients in water and removing their clothes - the usual procedure when involving chemical attacks, he said.

"What I think might have happened is that there was an attack involving cleaning products, which contain some chemical substances, in al-Khalidiya that would have led to this situation,” he added. “But it is not what I - as someone who treated patients for chlorine exposure - would call a chemical attack.”

The OPCW has confirmed scores of instances in which chemical weapons - such as chlorine, sarin, or sulphur mustard - were used in the Syrian conflict.

While the OPCW itself does not try to identify the parties responsible for such attacks, both pro- and anti-government forces have been accused of using such deadly weapons - with pro-Assad forces most often accused of these types of attacks.

Purpose unclear

With many people expressing scepticism toward the government's narrative around the events in Aleppo this weekend, questions remain as to the exact purpose behind the staging of a chemical attack, as well as what would motivate rebels to carry out this type of attack at this time.

During the battle to take eastern Aleppo from the rebels in late 2016, government forces were accused of launching several deadly chlorine attacks in opposition-held areas.

While the government rejected such claims, no chemical weapons attacks carried out by rebels were reported to have taken place in Aleppo at that time.

Saturday’s events come in the wake of Syrian government shelling in Idlib province, in which a teacher and four children were killed, amid a tenuous ceasefire in the last rebel-held bastion in the war-torn country.

Following the alleged Aleppo attack, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that air strikes - believed to have been carried out by Russian forces - took place in rebel-held areas of Aleppo province.

Those attacks were the first in the last two months, when Russia and Turkey agreed to create a buffer zone in the area.

For Anwar al-Bounni, a human rights lawyer and the chairman of the Syrian Centre for Legal Research, government claims of a chemical attack are “an excuse for any future military offensive against the rebels, under the umbrella of defending itself from the terrorists.

It is also a sign from the Assad regime to its major supporter, Russia, as well as the international community that he will not negotiate or deal with terrorists

- Anwar al-Bounni, chairman of the Syrian Centre for Legal Research

"The regime has always done such things in its own territories ahead of any major international meetings or summit about Syria," al-Bounni said.

"It is also a sign from the Assad regime to its major supporter, Russia, as well as the international community, that [Assad] will not negotiate or deal with terrorists."

Khatib, the doctor, surmised that any possible exaggeration about the events could be an attempt by the government to change the conversation - especially after the death of prominent anti-government activist Raed al-Fares, who was killed by unidentified gunmen on Friday in Idlib.

He said when Syrians' struggle for freedom makes international headlines, the government tries to shift the coverage by promoting a "radical, untrue face of the Syrian revolution".