Another Syria Chemical Attack

How credible are the reports, and what would an attack say about the regime?

Another chemical attack has occurred in Syria. Only this time the evidence is less forgiving. Video footage, purportedly of an attack that occurred in Eastern Damascus early on Wednesday morning, shows Syrian victims poisoned by asphyxiation with no apparent external wounds. It is clear some kind of chemical attack has occurred in the rebel-friendly area of Ghouta, but once again the how, when, why and who of it all is still unclear.

Videos of the aftermath of the attack show victims with severe breathing difficulties, rolling eyes and a pinkish-blue tint to their faces, but with no external wounds. These symptoms are consistent with the use of chemical agents to cause asphyxiation. But they do not match the use of pure, weaponized sarin, which would leave victims convulsing and emergency personnel affected by secondary exposure, or in fact any conventional chemical weapons Syria is known to possess.

So what could it be? It’s difficult to tell. Any mixture of agents could lead to these symptoms. It is also possible that a chemical agent was diluted before use. One report suggests that the release of a powerful riot-control agent in a confined space could lead to these effects.

Unlike past allegations, where skeptics (including me) raised questions about the accuracy of the allegations, in this case it is unlikely that the videos were stage-managed. The number of fatalities is larger than previous alleged chemical attacks—it would be difficult to simulate the high number of deaths and injuries, particularly of children and babies.

The timing of the attacks was bizarre. UN chemical-weapons inspectors were granted access to Syria just a few days ago. Their mandate includes determining whether chemical agents were used five months ago in three separate incidents. Why would Assad risk everything by carrying out an attack less than a fifteen-minute drive away from where the ten-member team is staying?

UN monitors were present in Syria when the first government-ordered large-scale massacre occurred in Houla in June 2012. Their presence does not seem to be a deterrent to Assad’s regime. In fact, consistently testing boundaries is in line with what the Assad government has been doing over the past two years, from targeting civilians and deploying Scud missiles to the apparent use of chemical agents today. Perhaps it is the regime’s way of demonstrating its confidence and lack of fear despite mounting international pressure, or the beginnings of a counteroffensive to regain power over rebel-controlled areas of Damascus. Either way, it is bold.

Another conceivable scenario is the breakdown in command and control of these weapons. In other words, a local commander could have authorized the use of chemical agents without Damascus knowing about it. Plausible, yes, but unlikely. Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal is his most prized possession. Only his most loyal troops will be tasked with securing and deploying them.

Calls for the UN inspectors to investigate the latest attacks have, unsurprisingly, been met with Syrian resistance. Reports state that “the Syrian regime did not provide [the UN officials] with permits to leave their area and head to Eastern Ghouta.” To go to the reported site so soon after the attack would have allowed inspectors to determine whether a chemical attack had occurred and what agents had been used. Traces of the agents used could still be present in the soil or on surrounding buildings, and shell fragments or unexploded munitions could still be present at the scene if this is what was used to deliver the agents. It was therefore unlikely that Assad would grant access to the inspectors. The UN Security Council could compel Assad to give them access, but this could only be done with a resolution, which Russia is likely to veto.

If confirmed, these attacks will clearly cross Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons. But once again, not much can be done. As I argued last year, the options for securing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles do not look good. The fragmented and diverse state of the opposition means that arming the rebels will not lead to a clear-cut, positive result. This is likely why, other than calling for investigations and expressing ‘concern’, the international community is once again silent before the tragedy that is unfolding in Syria.

Dina Esfandiary is a research associate, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, at The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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