Barack Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be crossing a ‘red line’, and prompt US intervention. A week ago that line was crossed – but are we armed with all the facts about the atrocity in Ghouta? Is this the result of : Revenge of the tyrant’s one-legged brother – or a monstrous trick by rebels?
By Guy Adams
HOW THE WORLD HEARD THE NEWS
It started as another night of heavy shelling for the beleaguered residents of what remains of Ghouta, a swathe of suburbs to the east of Damascus which is currently under the control of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Then, at around 3am on the morning of August 21st, a stream of highly-distressed civilians began arriving at local hospitals. Many of the men, women, and children were foaming at the mouth, and shaking uncontrollably. Their eyes were glazed, and their pupils contracted. Most panicked as they struggled to breathe.
Despite the best efforts of doctors, many suffocated – slowly and in great pain.
‘The look of horror in victims’ eyes was what affected us most,’ said Dr Majid Abu Ali, a Syrian GP who treated almost 700 victims. ‘All of us have been dealing with war victims for the past two years, but nothing could have prepared us for this. The situation was quite terrifying.’
Experts say the symptoms are consistent with a chemical attack, most likely using the deadly nerve agent sarin. Around 3,600 people were treated for poisoning that day.
Rebel spokesmen initially said 1,200 had died, but another estimate, from French agency Doctors Without Borders, puts the overall death toll at 355.
COULD IT HAVE BEEN REBEL PROPAGANDA?
Videos and photos taken after daylight broke showed eerily quiet streets full of twisted corpses. Inside ruined houses, entire families lay dead in their beds. Rows of toddlers, open-mouthed and wrapped in blankets, were laid out in morgues.
These sobering images shocked the world. But some have asked if we can really trust them. They were, after all, taken and dispersed with the co-operation of rebel forces, who are likely to have been acutely aware of their propaganda value.
Russia, which supports the Assad regime, has claimed that the attack was faked by rebels as a ‘provocation’ to force Western intervention. They and other sceptics doubt that Assad would have sanctioned an attack guaranteed to lead to such a combative response from the West, particularly the US.
Questions have also been raised about varying death tolls, as well as the veracity of footage showing victims being treated by medical staff who are not wearing protective clothing or gas masks.
Some experts have claimed that if sarin had indeed been used, doctors would surely have known better than to put themselves at serious risk of cross-contamination.
Others have raised serious doubts about reports from survivors, who described having inhaled clouds of a ‘foul-smelling’ orange-brown gas. Sarin is both invisible and odorless.
CAN WE BE SURE THAT ASSAD WAS RESPONSIBLE?
Assad’s forces are known to have stockpiles of sarin, along with mustard gas and the even more lethal VX. But that doesn’t mean they are the only ones in Syria able to access illegal chemical weapons.
Sarin is tricky to make, and even more difficult to contain and safely transport, so it tends to be the province of governments with sophisticated chemical and military capabilities.
However, elsewhere in the world, rogue militia groups have successfully used sarin in terrorist attacks. In 1995, for example, a relatively small Japanese cult group, Aum Shinrikyo, was able to release the nerve agent on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring hundreds more.
There is, therefore, a chance that rebel forces could have laid their hands on sarin – and, in an act of extraordinary cynicism, targeted their own people in order to prompt international intervention.
Given recent reported tensions between different rebel factions, it’s also possible that the attack was ordered by a militia commander targeting the stronghold of a rival faction.
In addition, using sarin as a weapon of war is a far tougher challenge than releasing it on enclosed subway trains.
A woman (right) affected by what activists said appeared to be a gas attack is led to a team of UN chemical weapons experts (left) for checking during the team’s visit to a site of an alleged attack in Damascus
To cause widespread casualties, as seen at Ghouta, it must be dispersed in tiny droplets over a wide area. The ten missiles used in the attack were specialist pieces of military hardware which did exactly that. If rebels were responsible, it would suggest they had obtained the missiles via a previously-unreported theft from Assad’s own stockpile.
In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN’s human rights commission on Syria, told Swiss TV that she had ‘strong, concrete suspicions’ that rebel forces had been using sarin, on a small scale, during the conflict.
Soon afterwards, Turkish security forces were reported to have found the nerve agent in the possession of fighters for the al-Nusra front, a rebel group linked to Al Qaeda, who were detained while heading across the border into Syria.
WHY IS OBAMA SO CONVINCED IT WAS ASSAD?
The US claimed yesterday to have evidence that Assad’s regime was behind the chemical attack after American spies intercepted a crucial phone call made just a few hours after the atrocity took place.
Last Wednesday morning, an official at the Syrian ministry of defense was overheard having a ‘panicked’ conversation with the leader of the army’s chemical weapons unit, in which he demanded to know why the attack had taken place. However, as the Iraq war showed, such intelligence shouldn’t always be taken at face value. And some skeptics have pointed out that it doesn’t actually prove that Assad or his men were directly responsible for the release of chemical weapons.
Indeed, it may instead indicate that the attack was the work of a rogue Syrian official overstepping his remit – and that the ministry of defense was unaware the attack had taken place.
WHY WOULD ASSAD LAUNCH A CHEMICAL ATTACK?
A few weeks ago, a convoy carrying Assad’s family through Damascus was attacked by insurgents.
The assassination attempt failed, but not before Assad’s wife and three children had witnessed the death of one of their favorite bodyguards.
Intelligence sources say the president’s inner circle was deeply angered by the ambush, which took place on a religious holiday.
Particularly upset, according to a Israeli TV report, was his ‘ruthless’, one-legged younger brother Maher, who leads the Syrian army’s 4th Armored Division.
He ordered an immediate escalation of hostility from his troops, whose base in Damascus is said to have been the source of many of the missiles which hit Ghouta last Wednesday night.
Maher can certainly be easily angered. He was accused of shooting at unarmed protesters in 2011, at the start of the uprising. And after losing his leg to a bomb attack a year ago, he immediately ordered his troops to begin a ferocious series of attacks on rebel strongholds.
Many observers therefore argue that he’s exactly the sort of character who could have impulsively ordered last week’s chemical attack without properly thinking through the diplomatic consequences.
WHAT ABOUT THE WEAPONS INSPECTORS?
Assad may be many things, but he is certainly not a fool. Western opponents of military intervention therefore argue that he couldn’t possibly have approved a chemical attack while a team of United Nations weapons inspectors were stationed in Damascus.
The group is staying at the Four Seasons Hotel, a mere 20-minute car journey from Ghouta. In theory, they could have begun investigating the attack within hours.
In practice, however, Assad is likely to have known that inspectors could be kept from the scene for several days. Indeed, it took until Monday for the group to gain diplomatic consent to leave their luxury accommodation.
That was long enough for some of the most crucial evidence to have disappeared.
Evidence of sarin begins to degrade within 48 hours, while the bodies of victims – which may contain other crucial clues – were buried within 24 hours of death, according to Islamic tradition.
Little wonder, then, that the inspectors have yet to release any concrete findings – leaving the truth about the incident wholly unclear.
WHY DO CHEMICAL WEAPONS REPRESENT A ‘RED LINE’?
Ever since the First World War, when hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed or blinded by mustard gas, chemical weapons have occupied a terrifying and controversial place in the arsenal of modern warfare.
Compared with bullets, shrapnel, and bombs, they cause relatively few deaths – just 4 percent of all WW1 casualties, for example. But chemical weapons kill slowly, and indiscriminately, and affect disproportionate numbers of civilians.
Like land-mines, they also maim and disable many victims.
As a result, most nations (with the exception of Syria) are signatories to the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, which has since the early 1990s outlawed their stockpiling, production, and use.
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