Recent reports that chemical weapons could possibly have been used in Syria have caused a great deal of alarm in the international community. If these reports are confirmed, there is a good chance the entrenched nearly two-year conflict in Syria will be taken to a whole new level, with a far greater likelihood of some kind of intervention by external actors. But very little about these new allegations indicate the intentional use of chemical weapons.
What do we actually know?
The allegation of use was first made by the Syrian state’s news agency (SANA), which broadcast pictures of the alleged victims. SANA reported that the “terrorists” had launched an early morning rocket attack on government-held parts of Khan al-Assal, in Aleppo, and in the Damascus suburb of al-Atebeh. According to the Assad government, the attacks left victims short of breath and foaming at the mouth. State media also said they killed 25 people and wounded 86 people.
Interestingly, the Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to confirm the allegations, releasing a statement that read: “A case of the use of chemical weapons by the armed opposition was recorded early in the morning of March 19th in Aleppo province.” No evidence was presented to confirm this claim.
But the opposition did corroborate these reports, when one commander said that he had secondhand reports indicating that the victims were indeed having trouble breathing and bluish skin after being exposed to the chemicals. Of course, the rebels differed with the Assad regime in claiming that the attacks had been perpetrated by the Assad regime.
Although both sides were quick to provide “proof” in the form of photos and videos of victims in hospitals, there was nothing showing the site of the attack and no indication in the pictures that the victims had actually suffered a chemical attack.
Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal allegedly consists of Mustard Gas, Sarin and VX. None of the pictures show any of the external symptoms, such as burns to the skin, linked to exposure to these agents. The use of these agents in a specific area would also have caused more devastating effects, especially given their odorless and fast-moving characteristics.
In addition, the pictures of medical staff in the hospital show them wearing no protective gear; were they to have treated victims of chemical weapons attacks without this protection there would have been reports of further deaths and injuries during the last 24 hours.
The Obama administration has been quick to urge caution. White House spokesperson James Carney said on Tuesday that, “We have no evidence to substantiate the charge that the opposition has used chemical weapons. We are deeply skeptical of a regime that has lost all credibility, and we would also warn the regime against making these kinds of charges as any kind of pretext or cover for its use of chemical weapons.” Furthermore, the New York Times reported that a Department of Defense official had told them, of-the-record, that “the claim should be treated with caution, if not outright skepticism.”
But on Tuesday night Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, told CNN: “I have a high probability to believe that chemical weapons were used.” Tellingly, he followed his assertion with “We need that final verification, but given everything we know over the last year and a half, I would come to the conclusion that they are either positioned for use, and ready to do that, or in fact have been used.”