Questions about alleged gas attack in Syria

This morning Reuters reported that according to Syrian activists, regime forces attacked a suburban Damascus area with nerve gas, killing nearly 500 people, many of them women and children. The dead are said to have signs of nerve gas poisoning.

Other opposition groups are claiming even higher casualty figures, including the Syrian National Coalition, which put the number at 650.

The attacks, which allegedly came in a hail of regime rockets at dawn today, are said to have affected residents in the areas of Ain Tarma, Zamalka, and Jobar.

A few hours ago, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy regime bombardments in a number of Damascus suburbs today, and also stated that: “Areas in the cities of Zamalka and Saqba and the towns of Jisreen and al-Mleiha are under regime forces’ violent bombardment, using mortar and rocket launchers, and news were received about tens of casualties in Zamalka due to the bombardment, which an activist said it was toxic gases, midst warplanes hovering over the area.”

Several hours earlier, SOHR reported:

Reef Dimashq: Tens of people, including children, have been killed by violent regime bombardment on the eastern and western Ghouta. Regime forces are using multiple rocket launchers to bombard since dawn today the towns cities of Erbin, Zamalka, Ein Terma as well as other parts of the Eastern Ghouta. Activists in the area of East Ghouta have said that the regime used poisonous gasses during their bombardment on the area, causing dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. In the Western Ghouta the airforce was used to bombard parts of Mou’adamiya city and its surrounding area, which is also under bombardment by multiple rocket launchers; this is considered the heaviest bombardment inflicted on the city since the beginning of the regime attack and attempt to regain control over it. Activists in Mou’adamaiya have also accused the regime of using poisonous gasses in their bombing of Mou’adamiya.

We at the SOHR call on the UN investigation team on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, as well as all international organisations such as the Red Cross , to head directly to these devastated areas in order to verify and investigate these reports and pinpoint the body responsible for the use of the weapons, as well as to immediately provide the badly needed aid and medical treatment to the people in these areas.

The regime has denied the allegations, the New York Times reported, and a number of countries have called for an immediate investigation.

The UN chemical weapons investigation team is already in Syria, having entered a few days ago to look into 13 previous reports of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Note that the UN team is planning to determine simply whether the weapons have been used, not who used them.

A few questions come to mind at this point:

1. Why would the regime conduct a chemical weapons attack right under the noses of the UN investigators?

2. Is it possible that the recent intense regime bombardments in the Damascus suburbs have hit rebel stocks of chemical weapons? In that regard, note that Zamalka, a suburb where the toxic chemical is said to have been released, was also allegedly targeted in a gas attack in June. If the regime were trying to avoid the accusation that it was using chemical warfare, would it return to the scene of a previous crime and repeat it?

3. Another possibility is that the rebels themselves used chemical weapons in the area earlier today. The objections to this possibility are similar to those in #1; why would a party use them when a UN inspection team is in country…. But it is also conceivable that rebels used the chemical weapons in an effort to frame the Assad regime.

4. While the casualties have been extensively displayed, little or no evidence has yet emerged of the delivery methods of the toxic material. Should this be more readily available?

It is perhaps noteworthy that the Syrian army reportedly targeted al Qaeda-linked forces in the Damascus suburbs of Zamalka and Dariyah in early December.

While most of the fingerpointing over alleged chemical weapons use has been directed at the Assad regime, there is reason to believe that Syrian rebels also have access to such weapons.

In June 2012, a Turkish jihadist site mentioned that the Free Syrian Army (which now is known to fight alongside al Qaeda forces from the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant) had obtained chemical weapons equipment from a military base in Aleppo that belonged to President Bashir al Assad’s army. [See Threat Matrix report, Jihadist site claims FSA has obtained chemical weapons equipment.]

In early December, the Al Nusrah Front and allied foreign Islamist battalions seized Sheikh Suleiman base, or Base 111, in Aleppo after a months-long siege. The military facility is rumored to be involved in the Assad regime’s chemical weapons program. The base “contained a clandestine scientific research whose purpose was unknown even to the rank and file,” AFP reported in late November, based on a claim from a soldier who defected. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front, foreign jihadists seize key Syrian base in Aleppo.]

On May 30 this year, the Turkish media reported that 12 individuals from the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusrah Front had been captured in antiterror operations in Adana, along with a total of two kilos (4,5 lb) of sarin gas. Five of the 12 suspects were later released. [See Threat Matrix report, Reports claim Al Nusrah Front members in Turkey were planning sarin gas attacks.]

And in early June, the Iraqi military broke up an al Qaeda in Iraq cell in Baghdad that was seeking to manufacture chemical weapons. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (formerly al Qaeda in Iraq), one of two al Qaeda affiliates that operate in Syria, is the dominant rebel force in Syria, along with the Al Nusrah Front, which is also an al Qaeda group. [See LWJ report, Iraq breaks up al Qaeda chemical weapons cell.]

Even Rolf Ekeus, a retired Swedish diplomat who headed a team of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s, commented that it would be “very peculiar” and at least “not very clever” for the Assad regime to perpetrate a large chemical weapons attack at the very time the UN team is in Syria.

The timing, location, and scale of this attack raise many questions indeed.


According to Agence France Presse, several experts in the field of chemical weapons are questioning the rebels’ claims about the use of sarin gas in the alleged attack.

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  • Steve Suranie says:

    Another possibility is the Assad regime was transporting chemical weapons to more secure locations and an accident occurred – perhaps a helicopter or fixed wing was shot down, a convoy attacked, or even just a plain ole accident.
    Also, the bodies do not present as nerve gas poisoning as the victims do not display the loss of their nervous systems (uncontrolled twitching and spasms) but rather more of an attack on their respiratory systems. Nor do the medical responders seem to be suffering from secondary inhalations. More likely the agent delivered was a chlorine or nitrogen oxide type. Their persistent is short term and they attack the respiratory system. Nerve agents persist for a long time after dispersal.

  • Tony says:

    In other words, nobody knows nothing. Except that a bunch of people are dead. Well, that’s a start, I suppose.

  • irebukeu says:

    Any Americans hurt?

  • scallywag says:

    With the latest violence and the use of social media to publicize the
    atrocities at hand, the world is once again reminded of the bitter
    unresolved tensions being played out via an often under reported proxy
    war courtesy of neighboring states and that of the US and regional
    super powers,China and Russia….
    Of course the question now is who’s hand will be forced now? Can we
    really believe the latest assertions or is this just another episode of
    a publicly fought war using any propaganda to exert pressure…?

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Would proof that the rebels used gas brings NATO into Syria on Assad’s side?

  • Will Fenwick says:

    Another possibility not yet discussed is that a rogue syrian army commander ordered their use without orders to do so from the regime.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    @Steve Suranie: The bodies do look different from those I recall seeing after Saddam’s gassing of Halabja Kurds in 1988.

  • Scott J says:

    There is plenty of evidence that the AQ types have been trying to either make or acquire chemical weapons. And why not? They have NEVER cared about civilians. They justify their deaths as a part of holy jihad. And they have a HUGE motivation to create large civilian casualties with chemical weapons and blame it on the Assad government. On the other hand, the Assad government has a HUGE motivation not to use chemical weapons. That motivation is the involvement of the U.S.
    Both sides know that if the U.S. decides to get involved actively, the war is over. So who benefits from this alleged chemical attack?
    The U.S. government should tread very carefully here. Without absolute, irrefutable proof that the Assad regime did this, the U.S. should be pressured into anything.

  • . says:

    Could anyone imagine what would happen if al Qaeda or any of its allies acquired nerve agents or other alternative weaponry? This is what keeps intelligence chiefs up at night.

  • Arjuna says:

    I believe that local commanders were ordered to retake the suburbs by any means necessary. They included chemical weapons in their barrage because of the efficacy of these weapons in urban terrain.Besides their obvious terror factor, the pervasive nature of these weapons make them ideal for flushing out hidden fighters. The ghastly and horrible impact they have on humans are the cost of war and the price of revenge in the eyes of the regime. The more the Syrian president is cornered, the more we can expect these desperate battlefield measures. The presence of the UN inspectors was probably just coincidental, however they should be granted access to the sites and casualties as soon as security conditions permit to pave the way for prosecution under international law. All officers in the chain of command involved in the use of chemical weapons, up to and including the Syrian president, should be tried for war crimes. Sadly this won’t happen. It is more likely that a terrorist group will use a chemical weapon than a Syrian officer will be prosecuted for such a use. That is the world we live in today.

  • Celtiberian says:

    Assad regime is cruel enough to use chemical weapons if it feels it needs to? YES
    However, Syrian regime is not led by stupids. Only a very stupid or drugged leadership could even entertain the idea of delivering chemical weapons into a civilian quarter in the outskirts of the city where UN cw experts are based. More so, what is the military gain of gassing some hundreds of civilians when the army is killing dozens of jihadists each day using conventional artillery, tanks and planes?
    Syrian army knows:
    1. the use of CW may unleash US intervention and the subsequent wiping out of all its tank columns, fighter bombers, artillery positions and communication centers.
    2. after two years of analysts saying “Assad regime is about to fall”, this precise summer has showed that the regime is far from being defeated and it is actually regaining ground using conventional warfare.
    3. The rebel movement rules the information war, so any cw attacks would be highly publicized and impossible to hide. More so with the UN experts lodged a few miles from the attack site.
    4. The military gain of killing hundreds of civilians and luckily a few dozens fighters (dozens of fighters are killed daily in Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus fronts) is negligible compared with the huge military loss that a western direct intervention would mean.
    So, how on earth can we believe that the military leadership of Syria is so stupid as to committ this suicidal action? Who benefits from this ‘attack’? Of course the Syrian regime is not. Behind the answer may lay the culprit.

  • Celtiberian says:

    I see two main hypothesis for this nonsense (assuming that the attack is actually a CW attack, which we don’t know at the moment):
    1. AQ-linked rebels by their own or advised/encouraged by Saudi/Qatari secret services has staged this attack to regain the international support for the rebels that was fading in the last months and to assure at last key US military intervention in their side. We know very well that AQ wouldn’t hesitate to kill children or any other innocent civilian if that would help its cause.
    If this is the case this has been an attack with three victims:
    – Syrian citizens massacred
    – Syrian regime framed
    – United States of America lured into a war on behalf of its existencial enemies. Double win for AQ.
    And only one winner: AlQaeda and their supporters from the Gulf emirates who after US intervention will control Syria, its land, its oil, its access to the Mediterranean, its frontier with Israel…
    2. Altenatively, the hypothesis by Lisa Lundquist on a rebel CW store facility being hit in the intense bombardment of yesterday also seems to be a plausible explanation for this nonsense

  • Celtiberian says:

    I find very interesting this piece by France24h:
    Chemical weapon claims: Two Syrian activists’ diverging viewpoints
    While 1st ‘activist’ go on with the usual regime-blaming (actually it is strange to call ‘activist’ to the spokeperson of the Islam Brigade), the 2nd activist, while being an enemy of Assad gives very rational points as to why he thinks this is not Assad work.

  • Arjuna says:

    Lisa, with all due respect, I believe the only possible explanation for this chemical attack was regime use, almost certainly employing warheads on 122 mm grad rockets. Just study the Syrian arsenal, look at the target set and the number of casualties in various areas. While the sourcing in the article seems sound, your alternate scenarios are far-fetched and implausible to the point of being misleading.
    The type of warhead was probably not true binary that mixes in flight,but one containing a binary agent mixed up beforehand, one of which could have been heavily diluted….still while the type of agent employed is not clear, it was probably an organophosphate rather than a blister agent.
    Steve S.what did you mean by a nitrogen oxide munition?
    Mr. period, sadly we can do much more than imagine. Al Qaeda have a very active WMD acquisition and development program, mostly being advanced by affiliates. They are working towards something they refer to as the Stage of Weapons of Mass Destruction…. They did not do this attack, but they are taking careful notes.

  • Steve Suranie says:

    @Scott J – if the meekness coming out of the WH in response to this attack is any indication there is no desire by the Obama admin to get involved in this war. So, if this was Assad, he is now given a green light to cross as many red lines as he wants. If it wasn’t, he’s now been given a green light to cross as many red lines as he wants.

  • blert says:

    “The type of warhead was probably not true binary that mixes in flight,but one containing a binary agent mixed up beforehand, one of which could have been heavily diluted….still while the type of agent employed is not clear, it was probably an organophosphate rather than a blister agent.”
    Factually incorrect.
    Binary agents require in flight mixing. That’s definitional. Pre-mixing them on the ground/ in the lab makes them no longer binary agents, as defined.
    Any dilution of the nerve agent is highly problematic. The normal scheme of design is to disperse the agent as a mist. So dilution occurs via the aerosol.
    Nerve agents are OILS, not gases. They seep directly into the skin/ lungs, and jam the nervous system. The result is that the victim is induced into full body spasms so strong that the muscles are pulled from their tendons and breathing breaks down. The victim also tosses their cookies and voids themselves. Heart attacks and chocking on vomit are common death throes. So, it’s a pretty graphic picture… not tidy at all.
    Troops in bunkers and tanks are surprisingly immune to nerve agents — IF they have air filtration. The ‘monkey models’ that Russia/ USSR exports often DO NOT have these NBC filters.
    The nerve agent oils are so heavy that they drop right out of the air and stick to the ground. This is by design. The intent was to leave clear air for troops to advance through — as compared to letting poison blow back onto them.
    Ultimately they’re designed as area denial weapons. Sort of vapor mine fields that can be laid down by artillery/ unguided rockets. (Terror strikes by long range ballistic missiles are a late stage development, a total shift in doctrine.)
    Logically, one would expect AQ to be the first to use nerve agents. It’s just that one would not expect them to prioritize their media campaign. The classic consensus was that AQ would bring such munitions into the West, first.
    Looking over the images, the matter is entirely confused.
    I can’t come to any conclusions. Even the UN experts can be led around by the nose in such situations. It’s not as if they’ve got ‘CIS Damascus’ running lab tests.

  • Bill says:

    The biggest question is where are the pictures? Every event has photos espectially of the weapon, but all ones sees is the injured or dead.
    ““These projectiles have a very distinct ribbed-ring fins which are similar to projectiles used by the opposition in Aleppo, Damascus, and other fronts, with both high-explosives and undefined materials,” “Bodansky said.
    “He added that the warheads used in the Damascus attack were cylindrical tanks which cracked and permitted a Tokyo-style – or “kitchen” mixture of liquids rather than the pressurized mix and vaporization at the molecular level by the force of core explosion in a standard Soviet-style chemical warhead.”
    Posted Video before, just a refresher
    “However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.
    “My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.
    Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.”
    Ghouta townspeople said the rebels were using mosques and private houses to sleep while storing their weapons in tunnels.
    Abdel-Moneim said his son and the others died during the chemical weapons attack. That same day, the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to al-Qaida, announced that it would similarly attack civilians in the Assad regime’s heartland of Latakia on Syria’s western coast, in purported retaliation.
    “They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.””


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