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Images From Suspected Poison Gas Attack Show Syrians Struggling To Breathe


NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been covering this attack. She's on the line now. Ruth, we just heard from this medical worker talking about what he saw in terms of this attack. But there are still a lot of questions about what exactly happened, how many people have died. Can you talk us through what you've learned?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well one of the problems with this is it's very hard to get independent confirmation because it's so difficult to get access to this area. The death tolls have varied a lot. Pro-opposition groups and rescue workers in the area say that 43 people died from chemical agent symptoms, but the number of fatalities is still very uncertain. And one of the reasons for that is that a lot of people are said to have died in their homes or in this building that were allegedly hit. And so they never made it to hospital, so doctors haven't been able to independently verify this. And then the other difficulty here is about exactly what the agent was in this alleged chemical attack.

Some experts are saying it is possible that what happened was that chlorine gas cylinders hit a building directly where there were a lot of people, and those people were exposed to high dosages. They had a high exposure to this chlorine gas, which caused a much higher than usual death toll for this attack. And then the other option, which some experts are saying, is that it could be that there is a mixture here of different - of chlorine but also of something else, possibly a nerve agent.

CORNISH: What are you hearing about the situation in Douma now in the aftermath of this?

SHERLOCK: So in Douma today, there's just chaos. The big news there is that Jaish al-Islam, which is the last rebel group that controls an area in Eastern Ghouta, the suburbs near Damascus, has agreed to this sort of surrender deal that would see a lot of them evacuate on buses to another rebel-held part of Syria in the north of the country. So you've got this situation where people are still trying to establish the facts of what happened in this alleged chemical attack. And don't forget there's also been heavy, heavy bombardment of regular artillery and airstrikes on this area. And now people are sort of scrambling to collect their possessions and leave this area as the Syrian government moves in.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what is the state of play in terms of the wider civil war?

SHERLOCK: Well, the Syrian government has the upper hand in this war, and it's consolidating its control of central Syria, along with the help of its allies Russia and Iran and their militias on the ground. But there's still a long and complicated battle ahead for control of the whole country. You have territory around the border areas that are all embroiled in separate battles, many of them involving militias that are backed by different foreign countries.

In the northeast, the U.S. is backing mainly Kurdish militias. You have Turkey supporting rebel groups in another northern province of Idlib. And whilst the Syrian regime has managed to use - to win territory using force to consolidate its control of these central areas, up in these border areas, it's also a political game. They also have to deal with the complex politics of dealing with all these different international actors. So they do have the upper hand in this war, but it's not over yet.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock speaking to us from Beirut. Ruth, thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.