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Aug 21, 3:00 PM EDT

Syria opposition: Deadly chemical attack forgotten


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BEIRUT (AP) -- The year since a chemical attack that killed hundreds near Damascus has been a strikingly good one for President Bashar Assad.

His deadly stockpile has been destroyed, but he has stayed in power, bought time and gotten world powers to engage him. Along the way, global disapproval has shifted away from Assad and toward the Islamic extremists who are fighting him and spreading destruction across Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, frustrated opposition leaders plan modest rallies Friday to commemorate an attack that they believe the world has largely forgotten.

For many Syrians, hopes for justice are fading and a deep sense of bitterness prevails. The U.S., which threatened to strike Assad's forces but backed away at the last minute, is now bombing the Islamic State group in neighboring Iraq.

Calls for Assad's ouster are no longer made publicly by Western officials.

"This is one anniversary that all free Syrians would love to forget. It was the beginning of the end of U.S. and international involvement in the Syrian conflict," said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

The U.S. reversal capped what many Syrians had long seen as a flippant approach in the West to the uprising.

"There has been an intention, from the beginning, to bury the Syrian revolution," said Hassan Taqieddine of eastern Ghouta, the Damascus suburb struck a year ago by an early morning barrage of rockets carrying chemical agents.

Taqieddine, who was among activists who rushed to evacuate and help casualties from the attack, said he is still haunted by images of the dead.

"And here we are, a year later, still getting bombed with barrel bombs, warplanes and chlorine, and no one cares," he said, speaking via Skype from Douma.

The Aug. 21, 2013, attack is almost certainly the single deadliest event in Syria's civil war - a conflict that has killed more than 170,000 people since it began in March 2011. Online video of the attack's aftermath showed scores of panicked victims twitching and suffocating in chaotic makeshift hospitals - shocking images that provoked international condemnation.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it the "worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century."

Following the chemical assault, U.N. inspectors conducted a swift investigation that determined rockets loaded with sarin had been fired from an area where the Syrian military has bases. But the U.N. probe's limited mandate did not authorize the experts to identify who was responsible for the attack.

The Syrian opposition and its allies, including the U.S., accused Damascus of carrying out the attack. Assad's government denied responsibility, blaming the rebels.

The Obama administration threatened to carry out punitive airstrikes against the Syrian government, touching off diplomatic efforts that eventually resulted in Assad accepting a U.S.-Russia brokered deal to relinquish his chemical arsenal.

"The truth is that after the chemical weapons deal, Assad became a partner, and after ISIS, he became a necessity, the lesser of two evils," Saab said, referring to the Islamic State militant group by one of its acronyms.

Assad has long maintained that the uprising against him was a conspiracy carried out by Islamic extremists and terrorists, not a revolt against a dictatorship. He has played on the rise of jihadi groups among rebels in Syria, and has recently stepped up his bombardment of Islamic State strongholds in Syria, in what some see as an attempt to send a message that he is a partner in the war on terrorism.

In the past 11 months, a joint mission by the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has overseen the removal of all of Syria's declared chemical stockpile of 1,300 metric tons (1,430 tons) from the country.

More than 80 percent of those materials, which include mustard gas and precursors to sarin, have been destroyed, according to the OPCW.

Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, welcomed the removal of Syria's chemical arsenal, but said its destruction "will do nothing for the hundreds of victims who died a year ago and the relatives who survive them."

"Closure of the chemical weapons issue in Syria will be possible only when those who ordered and executed the Ghouta attacks have been held to account and are behind bars," Houry said in a statement Thursday.

Many Syrians sought to remind the world of the Ghouta attack in various ways. Protests were being organized in parts of Syria following Muslim prayers Friday, the traditional day of protests in the Middle East.

On social media, they organized themselves under the hashtag "BreathingDeath" and "JusticeMatters" and posting photos and video of the attack.

"Never forget, never forgive," they wrote on Twitter.

Many expressed anger that the chemical weapons deal left Assad free to continue using conventional weapons against his opponents.

"Criminal Assad should have been punished, not gently partially disarmed," posted Obaida Nahas, a member of the Western-backed Syrian opposition.

Questions also linger over whether Assad is hiding undeclared poison gases or attacking rebels with chlorine. While not specified as a chemical weapon, chlorine is a toxic industrial gas. The use of any such material as a weapon is illegal under international law.

In May, an OPCW mission found evidence that chlorine gas was used in fighting between rebels and Assad's government. The OPCW stopped short of saying which side was to blame.

The main Western-backed Syrian opposition group used Thursday's anniversary to urge the international community to fully follow through with the mission to destroy Syria's chemical program.

It also mourned those killed a year ago, saying the "families of the victims deserve closure."

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Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.

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