The Syrian government has been unleashing a barrage of chemical weapons against its own people, according to two French journalists who spent two months undercover in the country.
Embedded with anti-government forces on the outskirts of Syria’s capital Damascus, Jean-Philippe Remy and photographer Laurent van der Stockt from Le Monde witnessed a series of attacks.
“No odour, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas,” wrote Mr Remy, from the front line in the suburb of Jobar.
“And then the symptoms appear. The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate.”
Mr van der Stockt was beside the rebel fighters when they were targetted by the gas, leaving him suffering from blurred vision and respiratory difficulties for four days.
The French team were told that the attacks in the capital began on April 11, near Abbasid Square – one of the key gateways to Damascus. Stronger chemicals were used close to a meat market, where government tanks were stationed.
Abu Atal, one of the fighters in Jobar, said that the rebels were initially confused by a chemical attack on April 13, and did not desert their positions, but remained still – wheezing for breath and pupils constricted, “terrorised and trying to calm themselves through prayer.”
General Abu Mohammad Al-Kurdi, commander of the Free Syrian Army’s first division, said that his men saw government soldiers leave their positions just before other men “wearing chemical protection suits” surged forward and set “little bombs, like mines” on the ground that began giving off a chemical product.
Other attacks outside of Damascus were reported to have taken place on March 14, in the town of Otaiba. The French reporters spoke to doctors who had treated the fighters.
They claim furthermore that the attacks were continuing across the country – with the most recent on May 23 in the zone of Adra, north east of Damascus.
“The aim of the attacks seemed to be essentially tactical at this stage – an attempt to destabilise rebel units in areas where government soldiers have been unable to dislodge them, and at the same time a test,” wrote Mr Remy.
“If Syrian army forces could dare to use chemical weapons in their own capital without setting off a serious international reaction, would that not be an invitation to pursue the experiment a bit further?”
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said that the accounts needed to be verified but they presented “increasingly strong evidence” of chemical attack by President Bashar Assad.
“We are consulting with our partners to see what concrete consequences that we are going to draw from this,” said Mr Fabius.
Reports of chemical weapons used by Mr Assad’s forces have been swirling for months. But the report in the French newspaper is remarkable for the depth of its sources.