AFRIN, Syria — One summer night a decade ago, the al-Shami family was woken up by a roaring sound or rockets but it wasn't followed by the usual explosions. Instead, the family members started having difficulty breathing.
Ghiad al-Shami, 26, remembers how everyone tried to run to the rooftop of their apartment building in eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb that at the time was held by opposition fighters trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Al-Shami's mother, three sisters and two brothers died that night — victims of the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin gas attack that killed hundreds and left thousands of others hurt.
Ten years on, al-Shami and other survivors say there has been no accountability for the attack and for the other atrocities committed in Syria during the country's brutal civil war, now in its 13th year.
Over the past year, Assad's government — accused by the United Nations of repeated chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians — has been able to break out of its political isolation.
Assad was welcomed back to the Arab League, which had suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 following a crackdown on anti-government protests. With the help of top allies Russia and Iran, Assad also recaptured large swaths of territory he initially lost to opposition groups.
“Today, instead of holding perpetrators accountable, Assad is being welcomed back into the Arab League and invited to international conferences, cementing impunity for the most heinous of crimes,” said Laila Kiki, executive director of The Syria Campaign advocacy group.
“To all those who seek to shake hands with Assad, this anniversary should serve as a clear reminder of the atrocities his regime has committed,” she said in a statement.
In 2013, Assad was widely held responsible for the eastern Ghouta attack — weapons specialists said the rocket systems involved were in the Syrian army’s arsenal.
The Syrian government has denied ever using chemical weapons. Russia, Syria’s prime ally, claims the Ghouta attack was carried out by opposition forces trying to push for foreign military intervention.
The United States threatened military retaliation in the aftermath of the attack, with then-President Barack Obama saying Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be Washington’s “red line.” However, the U.S. public and Congress were wary of a new war, as invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq had turned into quagmires.
In the end, Washington settled for a deal with Moscow for Assad to give up his chemical weapons' stockpile.
Syria says it eliminated its chemical arsenal under the 2013 agreement. It also joined a global chemical weapons watchdog based in The Hague, Netherlands, as global pressure mounted on Damascus.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has blamed the Syrian government for several deadly chemical attacks, most recently for a 2018 chlorine gas attack over Douma, another Damascus suburb, that killed 43 people.
Syrian authorities refused to allow investigation teams access to the site of the attack, and had their voting rights within the OPCW suspended in 2021 as punishment for the repeated use of toxic gas.
Damascus has accused the watchdog of bias in favor of the West and has not recognized its authority. Western countries say that Syria has not fully declared its chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW to be destroyed.
The Syrian government and its allies reclaimed eastern Ghouta in 2018, with most of its residents fleeing to the last rebel-held enclave in Syria's northwest.
Abdel Rahman Sabhia, a nurse and former resident of the suburb, has since moved to the town of Afrin in the northern Aleppo province, now under Turkish-backed groups.
“We lost hope in the international community,” said Sabhia, who worked at a voluntary field hospital in Ghouta at the time of the gas attack. “Why should we trust in them if we still haven’t seen any accountability for all the children who lost their families?”
Sabhia says he had gotten used to airstrikes and shelling, but the aftermath of the 2013 attack was different. The streets were eerily quiet, “like a ghost town,” he recalled. “We broke into a house and saw a baby, just months old, lying dead in bed with his parents."
At the time, dozens of bodies were laid out in hospitals with families looking to identify their loved ones. Some families were buried together in large graves.
Al-Shami, who now lives in Istanbul recalls regaining consciousness a day after the attack.
“I felt helpless,” he said.
Chehayeb reported from Beirut.