Questions Surround Latest Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

The White House is “deeply concerned” about reports, but the attack is not confirmed.

Syrian military soldiers check identifications at a check point in Damascus on Wednesday.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Add to Briefcase
Matt Vasilogambros
Aug. 21, 2013, 8:38 a.m.

Pos­sibly thou­sands of people died in Syr­ia on Wed­nes­day from what ap­pears to be the largest chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack since Sad­dam Hus­sein killed 5,000 Kur­ds in 1988.

A graph­ic video from Syr­ia shows hun­dreds of al­leged vic­tims in un­dis­closed loc­a­tions, re­portedly in the Ghouta re­gion, grasp­ing for breath, with foam com­ing from their mouths,and clearly in pain, as doc­tors and oth­ers at­tempt to re­vive them. Op­pos­i­tion groups say as many as 1,300 people died in the gas at­tack near Dam­as­cus.

But these re­ports raise some con­cerns.

The tim­ing is curi­ous (United Na­tions sci­ent­ists ar­rived this week to in­vest­ig­ate sep­ar­ate at­tacks in the coun­try). The video evid­ence is in­con­clus­ive (some ex­perts say it shows signs of a chem­ic­al at­tack, oth­ers think it could be tear gas). And both sides are deny­ing in­volve­ment (as with all chem­ic­al at­tacks in the con­flict thus far). So, was there a chem­ic­al at­tack in the Dam­as­cus sub­urbs this week? The an­swer de­pends on whom you ask.

Speak­ing on BBC News, Ham­ish de Bretton-Gor­don, a former com­mand­er of Brit­ish Chem­ic­al and Bio­lo­gic­al coun­terter­ror­ism forces, said the video showed signs of a chem­ic­al at­tack.

The pre­vi­ous 13 al­leged at­tacks, we’ve seen cas­u­al­ties of one or two, which is not really syn­onym­ous of chem­ic­al weapons. Here, I’ve heard fig­ures from 50 to 500, and cer­tainly the foot­age that you’re show­ing and I’ve seen are in the tens and hun­dreds. Now, that is not really what you’d ex­pect from con­ven­tion­al weapons. So, there is something else that is killing these people, and a nerve agent, a chem­ic­al weapon, could well be that.

Bay­an Baker, a nurse at the Douma Emer­gency Col­lec­tion fa­cil­ity, con­firms to Re­u­ters:

Many of the cas­u­al­ties are wo­men and chil­dren. They ar­rived with their pu­pils con­stric­ted, cold limbs, and foam in their mouths. The doc­tors say these are typ­ic­al symp­toms of nerve-gas vic­tims.

But CBRNe World News ed­it­or Gwyn Win­field, who spe­cial­izes in un­con­ven­tion­al weapons, dis­agrees, writ­ing that the video makes it hard to de­term­ine the signs and symp­toms of such an at­tack.

Clearly, res­pir­at­ory dis­tress, some nerve spasms, and a half-hearted wash-down (in­volving wa­ter and bare hands?!), but it could equally be a ri­ot con­trol agent as a CWA. There is an ex­ten­ded shot of a child’s face, but it, the light, is too poor to see the pu­pils; at least this time there is none of the sus­pi­cious white froth that cat­egor­ized early videos.

The U.N. team that is cur­rently in Syr­ia ex­amin­ing three al­leged chem­ic­al at­tacks could de­term­ine wheth­er sar­in or oth­er nerve agents were used Wed­nes­day morn­ing. However, the team’s man­date lim­its it to only those three sites and it’s un­likely the As­sad re­gime would al­low the rep­res­ent­at­ives in­to this town. And the more time that passes after an at­tack, the less likely it is that sci­ent­ists will be able dis­cov­er the nerve agent — a prob­lem the U.N. in­spect­ors know full well as they head to sites of at­tacks from six months ago.

The European Uni­on has called for an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the Wed­nes­day at­tack. And the White House said on Wed­nes­day it was “deeply con­cerned” by the re­ports com­ing out of Syr­ia, say­ing U.S. of­fi­cials “are work­ing ur­gently to gath­er ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion.”

“The United States strongly con­demns any and all use of chem­ic­al weapons,” said White House deputy press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est. “Those re­spons­ible for the use of chem­ic­al weapons must be held ac­count­able.”

Earn­est chal­lenged the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment to al­low U.N. in­vest­ig­at­ors to ex­am­ine the site of this latest al­leged at­tack.

None of this an­swers the ques­tion of who was be­hind the at­tack. Throughout the con­flict between gov­ern­ment and rebel forces, both sides have ac­cused the oth­er of chem­ic­al-weapons at­tacks. West­ern of­fi­cials have said that if chem­ic­al weapons were used, it was likely done by the As­sad re­gime.

In­deed, this latest de­vel­op­ment fur­ther com­plic­ates an already volat­ile situ­ation and dif­fi­cult de­cision for world lead­ers on a path for­ward. Pres­id­ent Obama has said, on sev­er­al oc­ca­sions, that the use of chem­ic­al weapons is a “red line,” and has put in mo­tion plans on provid­ing mil­it­ary as­sist­ance to rebel fight­ers. But crit­ics of the pres­id­ent have said he’s moved too slowly in do­ing so.

As one U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial told For­eign Policy on Monday, “As long as they keep body count at a cer­tain level, we won’t do any­thing.”

Here is the video of the vic­tims. Some read­ers may find it too graph­ic.

What We're Following See More »
McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
33 minutes ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
34 minutes ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.

Trump: I’ll Accept the Results “If I Win”
1 hours ago
Duterte Throws His Lot in with China
4 hours ago

During a state visit to China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte "declared an end to his country’s strategic alignment with the United States and pledged cooperation with Beijing." Duterte told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he's "realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world—China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Hatch Considering 2018 Re-election Run
5 hours ago

Reports say that Orrin Hatch, who in 2012 declared that he would retire at the end of his term, is considering going back on that pledge to run for an eighth term. Hatch, who is the longest serving Republican in the Senate, is unlikely to make any official declaration until after this election cycle is completed.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.