At least 58 civilians were killed Tuesday in a suspected chemical weapons attack carried out by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the village of Khan Sheikhoun, about 30 miles south of the city of Idlib. Mohammed Rasoul, who heads a charitable ambulance service in Idlib, clocked the death toll at 67. Another group, the Union of Medical Care Organizations, counted more than 100 deaths. After the initial attack, airstrikes targeted hospitals where victims were being treated. Hundreds of Syrian civilians are suffering from the effects of toxic gas and many are expected to die.
Photographs captured horrific scenes of people carrying “the bodies of dead children, and corpses wrapped in blankets lined up on the ground,” and of “at least seven dead children in the back of a pick-up truck.”
The United States, Britain, and France all held the regime of Bashar al-Assad responsible for the attack. “Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible,” said Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary. “Once again the Syrian regime will deny the evidence of its responsibility for this massacre,” stated French President Francois Hollande. “Those who support this regime can once again reflect on the enormity of their political, strategic and moral responsibility.”
Doctors on the scene said that the victims’ symptoms were consistent with the effects of sarin poisoning: narrowed pupils, foaming at the mouth, incessant vomiting, uncontrollable spasms, unconsciousness, and paralysis. Sarin is the same nerve agent the Assad regime used against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus in an August 2013 attack, which left 1,429 people dead, including 426 children.
Ahmad Tarakji, the head of the Syrian American Medical Society, told The Guardian, “In this most recent attack, dozens of children suffocated to death while they slept. This should strike at the very core of our humanity. How much longer will the world fail to respond to these heinous crimes?”
“The raid in Khan Sheikhoun indicates Assad’s growing confidence” in the aftermath of the reconquest of Aleppo and other military victories, wrote The Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen, which have only been possible due to the “unflinching support of Moscow and Shia militias backed by Iran.”
A stain on all humanity--
Israeli leaders strongly condemned suspected chemical weapons attacks carried out by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. “We, as a people who survived the greatest of atrocities and rose from the ashes to be a strong and secure nation, we will do all we can to continue to aid the survivors of the horrors in Syria,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. “We know all too well how dangerous silence can be, and we cannot remain mute.”
Rivlin’s statement continued, “The pictures we are seeing today from Syria and the reports of the massacre of children, of civilians, with chemical weapons, is a stain on all humanity. The international community in its entirety must come together to bring an end to this murderous madness, and ensure that such scenes will never be repeated anywhere.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his horror at the atrocity: “When I saw pictures of babies suffocating from a chemical attack in Syria, I was shocked and outraged. There’s no, none, no excuse whatsoever for the deliberate attacks on civilians and on children, especially with cruel and outlawed chemical weapons,” he said.
“It is a murderous regime that lost its humanity,” said Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition in the Knesset who chairs the Zionist Union party. “The United States and the world should not stand with indifference against those horrific images; they should take the proper measures to stop this madness."
Israel’s former chief of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, said that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians is a red line and even suggested that Israel should destroy Syrian planes engaged in such crimes against humanity.
A bad bridge--
Tzuriel said that, right now, Syria is the most significant strategic issue for Israel, because it presents a “microcosm of much of the international, regional and local relationships and power balances.” Previously, he has stated, “The most important strategic issue we’re currently facing is the strengthening of the Shiite axis led by Iran in Syria, especially after the fall of Aleppo.” Tzuriel emphasized that, due to recent battlefield developments in the Syrian civil war, there is “a strong imbalance in the region to Iran’s benefit.”
Prof. Asher Susser, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told the BBC in February, “The changes in Syria have brought Iran closer to Israel’s border than ever before.” Ehud Yaari, a veteran Arab affairs analyst, concurred. “The strategic objective of the Iranians today is to establish a land corridor between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, to reach the Mediterranean and the Israeli frontier,” he said. “This is strategically the major threat to Israel today.”
Haaretz’s defense analyst Amos Harel reported in February that the Assad regime, closely allied with Iran and Hezbollah, has been able to re-establish control over the northern part of the Syrian Golan Heights and is working on attaining such control over the southern Golan Heights as well.
Stopping polio before it spreads--
Israeli scientists have developed a better way to detect polio outbreaks quickly in countries where the virus has effectively been eradicated, Ben-Gurion University announced in a statement Monday.
There are two ways to detect an outbreak in a country that is considered polio-free. One is to wait until there is a reported case of paralysis. The other is environmental surveillance (ES) of sewage treatment facilities, a method Israel utilized during a 2013 outbreak of polio in the country.
ES involves regularly checking sewage treatment plants for the presence of the wild polio virus to see if it has somehow been transferred into an otherwise polio-free country. Polio could, for example, be brought over from a neighboring country. There are still three nations in the world -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria -- where polio has not been eradicated, and large percentages of their populations have not been vaccinated.
Until now, ES was considered unreliable. However, in a paper published last week in Science Translational Medicine, Dr. Yakir Berchenko and his colleague developed a model for establishing the accuracy of ES, which is actually better than the alternative. Moreover, using the model, ES can be "detected earlier, the extent of the outbreak determined more quickly and accurately, and the termination of the outbreak declared more definitively," according to the statement.
Though the data analyzed by BGU professors Berchenko and Itamar Grotto, as well as scientists from the Ministry of Health, the Gertner Institute, Tel Hashomer Hospital, and Tel Aviv University, was taken from the polio outbreak in Israel, the results apply globally.