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
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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.

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