Turkey Pulse

Turkish outrage mounts as doctors point to neurotoxin in Idlib attack

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Article Summary
In Turkish hospitals, medical staff including a team from Doctors Without Borders report mounting evidence that victims of yesterday's attack may have been exposed to sarin or a similar toxin.

Victims of yesterday’s suspected chemical attack in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province continue to receive treatment in Turkey amid growing signs that they may have been exposed to the banned toxin sarin. The injured are being treated at several private and state hospitals in Antakya, Reyhanli and Iskenderun, according to a statement from the office of the governor of the border province of Hatay.

Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag confirmed that 30 people had been brought to Turkey, which is home to nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, for treatment. “We have some findings of a chemical attack. We are documenting the findings and will send them to the World Health Organization,” Akdag said.

Two of the victims brought to Turkey have died.

A team from Doctors Without Borders treating the victims found patients’ symptoms were “consistent with exposure to an agent such as sarin gas,” the charity said in a statement.

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At least 72 people died and hundreds of others were wounded when warplanes struck the town of Khan Sheikhoun, about 30 miles from the city of Idlib in the early hours of Tuesday as many residents slept.

The Syrian military denied using any chemical agents. Its ally Russia claimed an airstrike hit a rebel depot full of chemical munitions.

But many Western governments remain unconvinced. UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson dismissed the denials today, telling Sky News, "All the evidence I have seen suggests this was the Assad regime … using illegal weapons on their own people."

The UN High Representative for Disarmament told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that if confirmed, this one will be the biggest chemical weapons attack in Syria since August 2013, when 1,000 people were killed in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had “reminded” Russia and Iran of their responsibility to monitor a shaky cease-fire that was brokered by Turkey, Russia and Iran and came into effect on Dec. 30.

Yesterday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss the latest crisis in Syria, calling the attack “inhuman.”

The massacre has put Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party on the spot over its efforts to mend ties with Russia since it downed a Russian jet in November 2015, sending critical trade and diplomatic ties into a tailspin.

Graphic images of dead children and other victims gasping for air and spewing saliva have provoked widespread outrage among the government’s pious base. “Murderers,” screamed the headlines of the pro-government daily Karar, which ran front-page photographs of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The government is in an extremely difficult situation over its relations with Russia because of Syria,” said Osman Atalay, a member of the executive board of the pro-Islamic Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a Turkish aid agency that is very active in rebel-held areas of Syria. IHH doctors have rushed to Idlib to help treat victims.

The charity, among Turkey’s biggest, has come under scrutiny over accusations that it concealed weapons amid aid materials destined to areas controlled by jihadist groups including the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, the most powerful group in Idlib. Atalay, who dismissed the claims as “black propaganda” in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor, said, “The aim of the chemical attacks is clear. Russia and the regime want to do to Idlib what they did to Aleppo: to crush it, to empty it. But it won’t be so easy this time.”

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Found in: doctors without borders, war crimes, russian involvement in syrian crisis, bashar al-assad, syrian regime, idlib, chemical weapons, sarin

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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