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World

Chemical Attack And Bombs Kill At Least 58 In Syria

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.N. Security Council is holding an emergency meeting today on Syria. At least 70 people in the northwestern part of that country were killed by airstrikes and a suspected chemical attack yesterday. World leaders are blaming the Syrian government, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which itself denies that it uses chemical weapons. The White House has called the attack reprehensible and says it cannot be ignored. President Trump issued a statement blaming the past policies of the Obama administration.

Stephen Rapp knows Syria well. He served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes and chief of the State Department's Office of Global Criminal Justice. Stephen Rapp joins us now on the line. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

STEPHEN RAPP: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: I understand you have been in touch with a physician working with victims of this attack in Idlib, Syria. What has that doctor told you?

RAPP: Well, the doctor tells me there's really no question that we're talking not about the chlorine gas that's been part of a lot of these barrel bombs that have been dropped by the government, but the sarin gas, the same kind of gas that was used in the horrendous attack in August of 2013 in al-Ghouta that killed 1,400. He treated about 80 of the survivors, saw many of the dead. Pinpoint pupils, convulsions, foaming at the mouth, all consistent with the injuries and deaths that occurred at al-Ghouta, the sarin gas that the Syrians had assured us had been completely removed. It clearly isn't - hasn't been removed. And they're the only ones that have access to this.

MARTIN: Based on your understanding of the rebel forces and their capacity, is this something that they could be responsible for? Because this is what Russia, which is a supporter of Bashar al-Assad, is claiming.

RAPP: Well, I mean, it's deny, deny, lie, lie. It's the same sort of thing that happened in Aleppo when they were bombing hospitals directly and aid convoys. It's part of the strategy to target the civilians. This is entirely a civilian neighborhood. It would have been no place to have a sarin gas depot. If it is - the Russians said something that was hit with a Syrian bomb and that accidentally, you know, released the sarin. That's complete nonsense. That's not the way that these injuries would have occurred if that had been correct.

No question this is, you know, having won Aleppo and Idlib, area - being an area that's still under opposition control and having gotten away with mass murder and crimes that weren't even committed in World War II, the regime is ratcheting it up to show that it can get away with essentially mass atrocities in order to win its war.

MARTIN: Do you think if it is confirmed that the Assad regime deployed these chemical weapons, do you think Assad might've felt emboldened by what we heard last week from the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and the secretary of state, both of whom said that the focus for the U.S. is on ISIS, not on removing Assad from power?

RAPP: Well, certainly that would have been a reason to be emboldened. And frankly, the failure to ever make him pay a price for crossing one red line after another for, as I said, doing things that weren't even done in World War II, the use of poison gas and the direct attack on medical facilities, not to mention other atrocities that we've seen elsewhere but have been done on an industrial scale. More than 50,000 men, women and children that have been tortured to death in his prisons, something that I've been deeply involved with investigating and beginning prosecutions on.

You know, he has been able to get away with these things. And frankly, the best we've had is to build cases in foreign courts to bring them to. But that's - that obviously - well, we're beginning to have a dawn of justice for Syria. But, you know, whether that will affect his decisions, we hope they will affect other people's, who will realize that there is no safe place for them to go in the world for the rest of their lives. So we're going to tie them up that way.

MARTIN: Ambassador Stephen Rapp, thank you so much for your time.

RAPP: Great. Good to talk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 12, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
Medical facilities, including Allied hospital ships, were attacked during World War II. And gas chambers were among the methods used by the Nazis to kill millions of Jews during the war. We should have noted both those facts during this conversation.