A Syrian man receives treatment at a hospital following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in Syria's Idlib province, on April 4, 2017. (Xinhua/AFP Photo)
by Hummam Sheikh Ali
DAMASCUS, April 5 (Xinhua) -- Pictures and video footages of the reported toxic attack in Syria's Idlib province grabbed the headlines across the globe, and unleashed a crescendo of international condemnation, accusing the Syrian government forces of being behind it.
Activists of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian air force on Tuesday carried out a toxic gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in the countryside of Idlib, killing 70 people and wounding tens of others.
The anti-President Bashar al-Assad rhetoric spread like wildfire, and the incident pushed U.S. President Donald Trump to say that his position of Assad has changed, after previous comments by his administration that ousting Assad was no longer a priority.
"It's very, very possible, and I will tell you it's already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much," Trump said.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called reports of the attack "horrific," adding that the incident "must be investigated and perpetrators held to account."
UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said the attack was believed to be chemical and launched from the air, noting that there should be a "clear identification of responsibilities and accountability."
But the videos and hunting images have apparently hypnotized the international opinion, or at least was used as a smoke screen that eclipsed a question: Why would the Syrian army use such weapon?
TOXIC GAS ATTACK REVIVES MORE ANTI-GOV'T SENTIMENT
For the Syrian government, which has been fighting for six years to prove that the country was subject to terrorism, carrying out such attack at this time would be wrong, particularly in Idlib, which is not a priority for the Syrian army.
Just a few days ago, officials at the Trump administration said ousting Assad was no longer a priority.
On top of that, media reports close to Damascus released a report about a secret visit by U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard to Syria, during which she reportedly met with Assad and conveyed a message from Trump, according to the Lebanese Akhbar newspaper.
According to the report, Gabbard told Assad whether to accept a call from Trump. Assad said yes immediately, and even gave her his direct number.
The congresswoman even asked the president if she could visit Aleppo city and she did.
All of these moves were read by observers as a shift in the U.S. stance toward the Syrian government.
Therefore, launching such an attack in Idlib would throw all these achievement away and draw in foreign military action against the government.
The Syrian army made notable gains against the rebels in key Syrian areas like Hama province in central Syria, and the countryside of Damascus, which would not push them to unleash such an attack.
SYRIA DENIES POSSESSING ANY CHEMICAL WEAPONS
In a response to the accusation, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said that the Syrian army doesn't possess any sort of chemical weapons, stressing that the Syrian government was committed to its deal with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told pan-Arab Mayadeen TV that the rebels who are supported by France, Britain, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were the ones carrying out the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.
The Syrian official also urged the international community to hold accountable the parties behind the attack.
Mekdad noted that the Syrian government had provided information to the OPCW weeks ago about the smuggling of toxic materials by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front into northern Syria.
In October 2013, the OPCW officials arrived in Syria to monitor the dismantlement of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, after Damascus officially joined the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Convention.
The OPCW later said that the government has made its chemical weapon production facilities inoperable.
The dismantlement of the Syrian chemical weapons was due to a U.S.-Russian understanding, the first sign of a consensus between both powers on the Syrian conflict.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
While the Syrian government categorically denied using the toxic weapon, it didn't explicitly deny carrying out the strike, and what Russia, the main ally of the Syrian government, pointed out.
Moscow said the deaths were caused when a Syrian air strike hit a "terrorist warehouse" used for making bombs containing "toxic substances."
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement that the strike, which was launched mid Tuesday, targeted a major rebel ammunition depot east of the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Konashenkov said that the warehouse was used to both produce and store shells containing toxic gas, adding that the shells were delivered to Iraq and repeatedly used there.
He pointed out that both Iraq and international organizations have confirmed the use of such weapons by militants.