Chemical attack a brutal end to rebellious town

Suspected chemical strike came after weeks of an intense air campaign that killed 1,600

Beirut: The suspected chemical weapons attack on Douma was a brutal finale for a town that had haunted Bashar Al Assad for seven years from right on his doorstep.

The leafy suburb on Damascus’ outskirts was the bastion of one of the toughest, most disciplined Islamist factions in Syria’s rebellion, raining mortars on Al Assad’s seat of power and holding out for years under devastating siege. Now destroyed and defeated, it will be the scene of an international fact-finding mission that arrives on Saturday to try to determine what happened there.

Russia and the United States have traded threats of military strikes and counterstrokes since the April 7 attack, which first responders and activists say killed more than 40 people and blamed on Al Assad’s forces.

On Friday, the Russian Defence Ministry claimed the attack was fake and accused Britain of staging it, a bold charge vehemently denied by Britain as “a blatant lie.”

The suspected chemical strike came after weeks of an intense air campaign that killed an estimated 1,600 people and tore the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta apart, levelling towns in an enclave that once housed 400,000 people, according to UN estimates.

A resident of Douma, an economist who fled the town amid threats to his life in 2015 and now lives in exile, said eight of his neighbours — two women and their six children — were found dead three days after the suspected chemical attack and were believed to have suffocated in their underground shelter from the poisonous gas. He said two of his aunts were still missing.

“There were plenty of bloody attacks before the use of chemical weapons and no one moved,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared for the safety of his family now living under regime control. “Only now and after seven years of destruction, the US and the world remembered it was time to punish Al Assad?”

Hours after the attack, the Army of Islam rebel group, which had controlled Douma since 2012, agreed to surrender and evacuate its fighters to rebel-held northern Syria. The rebels also gave up their prisoners, a key demand of the Syrian regime, and handed over their heavy weapons and maps of tunnels built over the years to navigate the sprawling neighbourhood. The last batch of rebel fighters left Douma on Friday, heading to Jarablus, a town in northern Syria controlled by Turkey-backed rebels and with a Turkish military presence.

A member of the Army of Islam, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Samer, said the alleged chemical gas attack was the final blow that settled the group’s fate. Fearing an internal uprising and divisions within the group, Army of Islam leaders opted to leave Douma, he said.

“To be honest, it was not the death of 40 or 50 that would have made (the rebels) give up on Douma. Many more died earlier,” Abu Samer said. “The chemical attack wasn’t the cruelest. But it was the terror and panic that hit the people that exerted the pressure on the group to leave.”

Known for its luscious grapes and apricots, Douma was a hub for anti-Al Assad protests in the early, peaceful days of the uprising. Residents of Damascus came there to rally and march, away from the heavy security in the capital. The town was split among Islamists — including ultraconservative Salafists — and secular socialist and Nasserite movements. When the regime moved to quash the revolt, the town was among the first to take up arms. It was in rebel hands by 2012.

The Army of Islam, whose founder Zahran Alloush was a native of Douma, quickly gained the upper hand, squeezing out the secular activists. But it also staunchly resisted the expansion of foreign extremists, seeing them as rivals. After Alloush was assassinated in a suspected regime air strike in late 2015, the group maintained its grip, although its popular support eroded under its increasingly exclusionary policies.

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