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.”
It is unclear what this assessment is based on, but there is no clear evidence to suggest that any chemical weapons have been used or that the opposition used them against government forces.
Although it may be possible that rebels used an improvised chemical weapon (by mixing available toxins together) or toxic bombs or shells in such an attack, it would be counter-productive to their goals. Why would a force that is seeking national and international legitimacy and trying to establish their credentials to receive international aid, use the very weapon whose morality they are criticizing?
Although it is unclear what was used, some reports suggest that the attacks were launched with Scud missiles. This is in line with the Assad government’s strategy of incremental escalation of its coercive measures against the rebels. If chemical weapons were used on a scud missile, my IISS colleague and missile expert, Michael Elleman, speculates that “we cannot dismiss the possibility that the missile’s oxidizer tank burst on impact and leaked nitric acid, itself a toxic gas.” This would release a dark orange cloud of gas, which is where witness reports come in. If this were the case, the attack would be attributed to the Assad government, since the rebels do not have Scud missiles.
Another possible scenario is the accidental release of chemical agents during an attack. Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical and biological weapons expert, explains that during fighting, chemical materials may be propelled into the air and inhaled by bystanders. Alternatively, chemical containers could have been hit by a shell or bomb; releasing toxic fumes into the air. But there have been no reports of industrial facilities or containers being hit or any reports of burning buildings.
Understandably, the U.S. and Europe are calling for restraint and caution. This is because the use of chemical weapons, by either side, would cross Obama’s “red-line,” thereby putting significant pressure on the international community to act. Indeed, while visiting Israel on Wednesday President Obama— while saying the U.S. would have to learn what happened first— said the use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer” in Syria that would force the international community to act.
But if anything, this event reiterates how little is known about the situation on the ground in Syria. What is striking is that we do not know for sure whether or not chemical weapons were even used and if they were, by whom. The lack of information, the poor lines of communication and the context make it difficult for all parties to be sure of anything.
In this context, the real debate should be whether the West should be arming the rebels. In other words, if the international community cannot be sure if the opposition is or isn’t using chemical weapons, in itself a relatively obvious act, it seems like it is far too ill-informed to make any decisions about significant material support for a Syrian opposition of whom little is known.
Dina Esfandiary is a Research Associate in the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).