Syria’s Civil War: The Mystery Behind a Deadly Chemical Attack

  • Share
  • Read Later
George Ourfalian / Reuters

Dead animals, killed by what some believe was a chemical attack, lie in the Syrian village of Khan al-Asal on March 23, 2013

Reports on bombings in Syria these days have become routine. But when Mohammad Sabbagh, an industrialist from Aleppo, heard about the attack near his hometown on March 19, the details stopped him cold. Survivors and witnesses of what was being described by the government news agency as a chemical attack said they smelled something like chlorine. And as the owner of Syria’s only chlorine-gas manufacturing plant, Sabbagh knew that if chlorine was involved, it most likely came from his factory.

The attack killed 31 people, including 10 soldiers, and wounded scores more. In the immediate aftermath, the Syrian government and the opposition traded accusations. The government claimed that “terrorists,” its term for the rebels that have been fighting the regime for two years, had fired a “missile containing a chemical substance” at the village of Khan al-Asal in retaliation for their support of the government. Kasem Saad Eddine, spokesperson for the opposition military council of Aleppo, accused the government of attacking its own people in order to smear the opposition. “The regime is trying to hide its crime by accusing the FSA,” he tells TIME, referring to the Free Syrian Army, the loose confederation of rebel groups fighting the government. Eddine also accused the Syrian government of launching a second chemical attack near Damascus, causing an unspecified number of casualties. Whatever the case, the attack at Khan al-Asal marks a chilling evolution in a war that has already taken 70,000 lives and disrupted, perhaps permanently, millions more. If it turns out that the government has used chemical weapons, international demands for armed intervention will increase. If the rebels used them, the escalation in tactics indicates that the war is about to become even bloodier.

(MORE: Viewpoint: Aleppo Gas Attack Shows How Little We Know About Syria’s Civil War)

The U.N. has acquiesced to a Syrian government request to send an investigation team to Khan al-Asal; it is expected to arrive on site this week. The team will be headed by Ake Sellstrom, a veteran chemical-weapons inspector from Sweden who was instrumental in investigating and dismantling Iraq’s chemical- and biological-weapons programs in the 1990s. It is not yet clear if the U.N. team will investigate other accusations of chemical-weapons use in Syria, nor is it clear how much access it will have. The final details for the trip will be worked out in the coming days. The team’s mandate is limited to a technical investigation, which means it will only be able to ascertain whether or not chemical weapons were used, not who used them — a frustrating outcome for those seeking clarity. Nevertheless, the findings could be a strong indication of who might have been behind the attacks. The Syrian government is believed to possess one of the biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world, including nerve agents Sarin and VX, as well as mustard gas, though it has repeatedly said it would never use such weapons against its own people. The opposition, though it also says it would never use chemical weapons, does have access to at least one item that could be used in a chemical attack: Sabbagh’s chlorine gas.

In August rebel forces took Sabbagh’s factory by force, as part of a sweep that also netted them an electricity station and a military airport about 30 km from Aleppo. Sabbagh, who has since fled Aleppo for Beirut, says his factory is now occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group with strong ties to al-Qaeda that has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. He knows this because his site manager has struck a deal with the rebels — they supply 200 L of fuel a day to keep the generator running so that the valves of his $25 million factory don’t freeze up. The factory isn’t operational anymore, but this way at least, says Sabbagh, it might be one day in the future. In the meantime, he has no idea what has happened, if anything, to the 400 or so steel barrels of chlorine gas he had stored in the compound. The yellow tanks, which hold one ton of gas each, are used for purifying municipal water supplies. “No one can know for certain, but if it turns out chlorine gas was used in the attack, then the first possibility is that it was mine. There is no other factory in Syria that can make this gas, and now it is under opposition control,” he says.

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

To Faris al-Shehabi, head of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry and a strong government supporter, it was obvious from Day One that the rebels had their eyes on the gas. “Why else would they capture a factory in the middle of nowhere? For the sniper positions?” he asks sarcastically while meeting TIME in Beirut, where he is traveling for business. “We warned back then that chemical components were in the hands of terrorists, but no one listened.”

The investigation, when it starts, will be hobbled by the passage of time. According to a chemical-weapons expert familiar with such inquiries, who spoke on condition of anonymity over the telephone, the investigating team will examine soil, air and oil samples taken from the blast site. It is unclear whether the team will have access to survivors (who probably bear little traces of the chemicals so long after the attack) or to autopsy reports. But initial assessments based upon body counts, photos and video footage taken at the hospital after the attack seem to rule out nerve agents or mustard gas. “Looking at the death rate relative to the number of people exposed, it couldn’t have been a weaponized nerve agent,” says the expert. “And mustard gas rubs off on whoever touches it, but you don’t see the medical personnel taking additional protective measure when they treat the patients. So it’s pretty likely it was something else.”

A doctor who treated victims immediately after the attack, and who asked not to be identified, said few of the patients had visible wounds. Most suffered from severe cramps, vomiting, headaches and troubled breathing. Those who died did so right after breathing the gas, he says. “Our staff are not used to dealing with such cases, it was the first time we treated something like it.” Several hours after the attack, two doctors returned to the blast site to warn people away. The smell, described as “rotting garbage,” was still there.

(MORE: In Syria, the Rebels Have Begun to Fight Among Themselves)

As unlikely a deliberate use by the Syrian government of a nerve gas might be, especially considering the near certainty of an international reaction, few believe that the opposition has the wherewithal to make even crude chemical weapons. “It’s a question of capabilities,” says Greg Thielmann, a chemical-weapons expert at the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “Even if they had chemicals, where would they get access to a delivery system?” More likely, he says, the mass poisonings were a “side effect of a high explosive device that released a chemical in the vicinity.”

Who might have detonated that kind of improvised chemical explosive device, however, is impossible to tell. Government supporters frequently make the link between Jabhat al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in Iraq who experimented with chlorine bombs at the height of that country’s sectarian war in 2006 and ’07. There, insurgents rolled the yellow barrels of chlorine gas onto the back of pickup trucks packed with explosives. The effects were negligible, says the chemical-weapons expert, who points out that the heat of the blast tends to evaporate the chlorine, diminishing impact. Still, by linking al-Qaeda’s failed chemical-weapons attempts in Iraq with allegations that Jabhat al-Nusra is doing the same, the Syrian regime can buttress its long-standing charge that the rebellion against its rule is being driven by radical Islamists.

Rebel spokesman Eddine says the allegations are ridiculous. He holds that the regime was actually trying to target FSA rebels who had taken a nearby military school, and missed, hitting the progovernment village nearby. To progovernment industrialist al-Shehabi, the idea that the Syrian army would use crude chemical weapons doesn’t make any sense. “Why would the army use primitive chemical weapons against civilians in a not-so-important area, and not use the real chemical weapons we supposedly have when we are faced with our enemies taking over our strategic military bases?”

(MORE: How Islamist Rebels in Syria Are Ruling a Fallen Provincial Capital)

Both believe that the pending U.N. investigation will clear everything up. In fact, the investigation, says weapons expert Thielmann, is likely to make the situation more complicated — especially if it turns out, as suspected, that a substance just short of a proscribed chemical agent was used. Citing U.S. President Barack Obama’s warning nearly a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a “red line” for U.S. intervention, Thielmann points out that chlorine might not qualify. “It becomes a very fuzzy red line. Was Obama only talking about chemical weapons prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention? Well, depending on how you look at it, chlorine would not be prohibited.” And Syria’s brutal civil war grinds on.

— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut


Chlorine is a fully fledged chemical weapon as per the 5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas released at sunrise on 22 April, 1915, second battle of Ypres.  Ergo, the culprits are grade A war criminals. 

AdamLarson 1 Like

@gc1956a The grade of war criminal will be debated. Now the flavor of the day is to say since it was only chlorine gas (which the rebels have) and not extreme CW (which apparently they don't, yet) then it wasn't a crime at all, probably just some random industrial accident everyone should ignore. Don't get me wrong - I'm glad we're not already bombing Syria over this, but Syrians can't just ignore it, so neither should the world community that claims to care so much about them. 


@AdamLarson @gc1956a    The Syrian regime handed over thousands of captives in exchange for a few Iranians because the regional skullduggery is not a single half-inch removed from the Armenian genocide, in other words the Alawite and Christian POWs get murdered as a matter of standard operating procedure, including those exhibited on Tv  (pilots etc.) with the assurance of the protection of the Geneva convention. So straight from implausible assurance to throat-cutting.  So, if a mechanism can be found to eliminate entire ethnic groups, it will be used.  Be assured the rebels are doing poison gas executions as tests.   That's the kind of war it is.  The regime was upset at the early demonstrations because in some cases as per Yugoslavia, it is clearly Srebrenica waiting to happen.  The regime didn't want the world to know Syria was a nest of sectarian hatred with the state keeping the lid on it.  Muslims also kill on the basis of ethnicity, also believe in race origins myths.  The winning teams of the opposition will turn out to be unambiguously loathsome.  The rebels have bumped off more of the peaceful opposition than the regime ever did.  The regime's prisoners turned up in Paris etc.   


some people is going to become so stupid after being educated from popular university, fool human can understand where are you  after being dead. stop your all conspire remembering of dead please.


US Restraint In Syria Could Aid Iran Nuclear Talks

by The Associated Press

April 02, 2013 3:23 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's reluctance to give military aid to Syrian rebels may be explained, in part, in three words: Iranian nuclear weapons.

For the first time in years, the United States has seen a glimmer of hope in persuading Iran to curb its nuclear enrichment program so it cannot quickly or easily make an atomic bomb. Negotiations resume this week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where encouraging talks in February between six world powers and the Islamic Republic ended in what Iranian diplomat Saeed Jalili called a "turning point" after multiple thwarted steps toward a breakthrough.

But Tehran is unlikely to bend to Washington's will on its nuclear program if it is fighting American-supplied rebels at the same time in Syria. Tehran is Syrian President Bashar Assad's chief backer in the two-year civil war that, by U.N. estimates, has left at least 70,000 people dead. Iranian forces are believed to be fighting alongside the regime's army in Syria, and a senior commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard force was killed outside Damascus in February.

Russia also is supplying Assad's forces with arms. And the U.S. does not want to risk alienating Russia, one of the six negotiating nations also seeking to limit Iran's nuclear program, by entering what would amount to a proxy war in Syria.

The White House has at least for now put the nuclear negotiations ahead of intervening in Syria, according to diplomats, former Obama administration officials and experts. Opposition forces in Syria are in disarray and commanded in some areas by a jihadist group linked to al-Qaida. Preventing Iran from building a nuclear bomb remains a top priority for the Obama administration, which has been bent on ending wars — not opening new military fronts.

"I think that the United States has not taken a more active role in Syria from the beginning because they didn't want to disturb the possibility, to give them space, to negotiate with Iran," Javier Solana, the former European Union foreign policy chief, said Monday at a Brookings Institution discussion about this week's talks. Solana, who was a top negotiator with Tehran in the nuclear program until 2009, added, "They probably knew that getting very engaged against Assad, engaged even militarily, could contribute to a break in the potential negotiations with Tehran."

Solana also warned of frostier relations between Moscow and Washington that could scuttle success in both areas. "With Russia, we need to be much more engaged in order to resolve the Syrian problem and, at the end, the question of Tehran," he said.

Adding to the mix is the unpredictable relationship between the U.S. and China, which has been leery of harsh Western sanctions on Iran and is expected to follow Russia's lead on the nuclear negotiations. Without Russia and China's support, experts say, the West will have little success in reaching a compromise with Iran.

"Resolving the nuclear impasse with Iran is the biggest challenge this year in the Middle East, and that requires careful handling of not only Iran, but Russia and China," said retired Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, who followed the negotiations closely as the top U.S. envoy to Baghdad last year. "Decisions on Syria and other international questions certainly will be taken in this context."

The White House refused comment, and a senior State Department official played down a direct linkage between the two national security priorities.

The negotiations have indirect, if wide-reaching, links to regional affairs that include Syria but also go beyond, including the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, Washington's uneasy detente with Baghdad and Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal — the only one of its kind in the Mideast. Iran has often said it wants to use the nuclear talks as a possible springboard for other negotiations on regional issues, such as its call for a nuclear-free Middle East — Tehran's way of trying to push for more international accountability on Israel's nuclear program.

Off-and-on talks between Iran and the world powers — the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany, known as P5+1 — began after the six nations offered Tehran a series of incentives in 2006 in exchange for a commitment to stop uranium enrichment and other activities that could be used to make weapons. Iran long has maintained that it is enriching uranium only to make reactor fuel and medical isotopes, and insists it has a right to do so under international law. Last summer, the U.S. and E.U. hit Iran's economy and oil industry with tough sanctions to force it to comply.

But Iran has continued its program despite the sanctions. In February, in an attempt to move flagging negotiations forward, the world powers offered broader concessions to Iran, including letting it keep a limited amount of enriched uranium and suspend — but not fully close — a bunker-like nuclear facility near the holy city Qom. The world powers' offer, which also included removing some of the Western sanctions, was hailed by Iran as an important step forward in the process.

Few expect any major breakthroughs in the negotiations beginning this week until after Iran's presidential election in June.

Meanwhile, fighting in Syria has only intensified, and fears that Assad's forces used chemical weapons on rebel fighters in March brought the U.S. closer than ever to sending military aid to the opposition. Yet Obama has resisted pressures from foreign allies, Congress and his own advisers to arm the rebels or at least supply them with military equipment, or to use targeted airstrikes to destroy some of Assad's warplanes. The U.S. is helping train some former Syrian army soldiers — mostly Sunni and tribal Bedouins — in neighboring Jordan, which officials describe as non-lethal aid.

Part of Obama's reluctance, officials say, is the fear that U.S. weapons could end up in the hands of jihadists affiliated with al-Qaida. Of top concern is the Jabhat al-Nusra, a wing of the Islamic State of Iraq which, in turn, blames Iran for supporting the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

"Since we are now looking more at a pending regime collapse in Damascus that has a strong potential to turn it into a launch pad for transnational jihadism, Washington is more interested in a negotiated settlement, which involves talking to Iran," said Kamran Bokhari, a Toronto-based expert on Mideast issues for the global intelligence company Stratfor.

©2013 NPR


All leaders must avoid staying too long on their position.Modern democracy mean always having new leader.Assad must take responsibilty on what happen in Syria now.He know nothing a bout democracy.He want to be Paraoh,who govern until heir death.He had stone age head.


@ZabaDa    I can't see anything as fragile as a democrat survive for very long in a post-Assad Syria, the non-interventionist opposition were strung up by the armed opposition,  Syria, is more akin to the former Yugoslavia.  The Assad regime had the merit of doing nothing that could get in the way of shopping trips to Paris.   Sadly, the west has played into the hands of the petro-monarchies to sustain four or five wars, all of them sectarian, for the price of one.


Many commentators continue to misunderstand the central tenet of the Chemical Weapons Convention. That is, ANY toxic material is designated as a chemical weapon if the INTENT is to injure or cause harm through its toxic properties. This is irrespective of those chemicals categorized in schedules 1 to 3 which do not provide an exhaustive list. Therefore if a toxic material was deliberately used in Khan al-Asal to cause harm then that material would automatically be designated as a chemical weapon and thus contravene Article 1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.


@isthatmygoat     Absolutely, the insurgents are using chemical weapons and NATO is not going to do anything about it.


How to destroy a country while the world watches.  There's just one problem with it!  Who is really paying for it, and I don't mean in dollars, I mean in lives lost.  The men, women and children who are really the ones who make up the country of Syria and I'm not talking about the government of Syria, I'm talking about the rank and file civilians who have either fled, hide or get themselves killed in the process.  It really is time for this country's neighbors to step in and stop the slaughter, it's quit obvious no one else is going to.  I have to say that in the last two years that this has been going on now I have heard very little about the common ordinary people and how they are doing, but then they are just ordinary people who are caught in the middle......Fred 


@fred.fries6     It is the neighbors who are encouraging the slaughter.  Turkey is targeting the descendants of the Armenians who escaped the genocide.  That's an imperative, a solution that is not final isn't a solution. Turkey wants to keep its Syrian provinces, the French gift, the bribe not to join the Axis,  and with an eye to further expansion, to promote a neo-Ottoman dispensation in its former empire. The war is intended to resolve the Alawite and Christian problem. If the insurgents win, the Christians and Alawites have to go.