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.
This article was originally published at LongWarJournal.org. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
Lisa Lundquist is the Editor of The Long War Journal. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from Yale and a Juris Doctor degree from UCLA. She has lived abroad, taught at an international school, and written and edited various publications in the field of law.
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