At least 26 people have been killed and more than 80 wounded in what may have been the first chemical attack in Syria’s two-year-old civil war. The Syrian government has accused rebel fighters of launching the attack against a village in Aleppo. The use of chemical weapons has yet to be confirmed, however, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al Zoubi claimed that the purported chemical attack was launched “from [the Da’el area in al-Neirab” in Aleppo against the village of Khan al Asal, which is currently under Syrian military control. The unidentified rebel forces fired “a rocket with chemical substances” at the village, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
A rebel commander from the “Ansar Brigade” told Reuters that his forces were not behind the attack, and accused the Syrian military of launching a Scud missile filled with a chemical agent.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the civil war, said a rocket attack in the town killed 26 people, including “16 regular soldiers.” News reports indicate that chlorine gas was the likely agent as many victims smelled the chemical and reported problems breathing.
If confirmed, the chemical attack would be the first recorded in the Syrian civil war. While the Syrian government is known to possess massive stockpiles of chemical weapons, it has yet to use its deadly arsenal despite losing ground to rebel groups, including al Qaeda’s affiliate, the Al Nusrah Front. The Assad regime has claimed it would not use chemical weapons against its own people, and that the poisonous agents would only be used against external enemies.
It is feared that Syrian rebel groups may have obtained access to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. In December 2012, the Al Nusrah Front and allied jihadist groups seized control of the Sheikh Suleiman base, or Base 111, in Aleppo, as well as a chlorine factory near the city. The Sheikh Suleiman base is thought to have been a key node in the Syrian military’s chemical weapons program.
Additionally, jihadist groups such as the Al Nusrah Front have taken control of several Syrian military bases, including an air base in Aleppo that housed Scuds and anti-aircraft missiles. It is unclear if the jihadist groups have the expertise or capability to launch the weapons.
Al Qaeda has employed crude chlorine bombs in the past. From February to May 2007, al Qaeda in Iraq attempted 10 suicide attacks in Ramadi, Fallujah, Amiriya, Taji, and Baghdad, in which the bombs included chlorine gas containers. US and Iraqi forces also found several chlorine bomb factories in Anbar and Baghdad and intercepted several of the bombs before they were detonated. The attempts to disperse chlorine gas in the explosion were crude; although nearly all of the Iraqis close to the blasts were killed, many others in the surrounding areas were severely sickened but did not die. In Anbar, al Qaeda directed many of the chlorine gas attacks at civilian locations; their target was the Awakening, the group of tribes and former insurgents who opposed al Qaeda.
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