The Known Knowns and Known Unknowns of a Chemical Attack in Syria

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AMMAR DAR / REUTERS

A man, affected by what activists say is nerve gas, breathes through an oxygen mask in the Damascus suburbs of Jesreen, Aug. 21, 2013.

On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius offered what is perhaps the most vehement reaction so far to opposition allegations that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical-warfare agents against civilians in the eastern suburbs around Damascus. If the use of such weapons is confirmed, Fabius told French broadcaster BFM, “France’s position is that there must be a reaction, a reaction that could take the form of a reaction with force.”

Fabius didn’t elaborate what, exactly, he meant by “force,” though he did rule out ground troops. “I believe [such an attack] cannot go without a reaction from those who believe in international legality.” The threat of applying “force” without deploying ground troops is an ambiguous one — all the more appropriate considering that everything that is known about the alleged attack is similarly ambiguous, from the number of dead to the chemicals used to how they might have been deployed to who might be responsible. And despite the fact that U.N. chemical-weapons inspectors are staying in a hotel not 5 km from the site of the alleged attack, the truth may never come out.

(VIDEO: Victims of Alleged Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria)

Here’s a breakdown of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we can’t know about what happened near Damascus on Aug. 21.

1. Method of deployment

Opposition activists reported a series of missiles launched at the area just before dawn. Videos that can’t be confirmed show a missile arc above the sky and a gray cloud above the area. Later footage showed exploded munitions that were purported to have caused the attack. In a blog post, Syrian weapons expert Brown Moses writes that he has seen similar, apparently Syrian-made, munitions linked to other alleged chemical attacks. Despite the possibly explosive nature of the munitions, none of the victims that appear in the videos seem to have been hit by shrapnel or explosives. Then again, they did hit early in the morning, so it’s possible no one was near the point of impact. Weapons inspectors would have to examine the munitions to determine if they carried chemical agents.

2. Location

Activists have posted a map listing the nine locations hit and casualty figures for each site. The figures have not been updated for 24 hours, but the locations are consistent with other tweets and videos.

3. The number of dead

Photos show scores, if not more, of dead, shrouded bodies lined up to be collected by family. Casualty counts range from low hundreds to 1,400, according to activists. But without cross-checking names with living relatives, it’s impossible to confirm any numbers at all. This will take time. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights provides the most reliable casualty counts for the Syrian war based on extensive cross-checking; so far it has not been able to contribute a number for yesterday’s attack. Watch that space.

(MORE: U.N. Chemical-Weapons Experts Arrive in Syria: Are They on a Fool’s Errand?)

4. Symptoms

Video footage coming from the attack sites reveals a horrifying litany of symptoms, from vomiting, difficulty breathing, catatonic states, paralysis, foaming at the mouth, dilated pupils, constricted pupils, tremors, excess salivation and uncontrolled defecation and urination. These could all be symptoms of chemical attack, but they are inconsistent. Nerve agents like sarin, for example, don’t cause foaming at the mouth, but other lung irritants like chlorine gas might. Age, allergies and asthma can also impact how symptoms manifest. The agents in question could be diluted or combined in novel ways that produce an unusual array of symptoms. Even if the videos are unconfirmed, they clearly demonstrate that the victims are suffering horribly and that something terrible has happened to a large number of people. The only way to know for sure what kind of agents were used would be through testing blood and tissue samples of the victims, and environmental samples taken at the site.

5. Who is at fault?

This may never be known. Accusations are levied at all sides — the regime, the rebels, rogue elements of the government army, al-Qaeda-linked elements with the rebels. The list goes on. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Thursday that the attack should be investigated without any further delay, and he dispatched a deputy, Under Secretary-General Angela Kane, to Damascus. Russia, the Assad regime’s biggest backer, also pushed for an investigation. Even if the U.N. chemical-weapons inspectors do gain access to the site, they will only be able to ascertain that chemical weapons were used. They will not be able to apportion blame, as it is not part of their mandate. Foreign intelligence agencies may come up with their own evidence, as the U.S., France and Israel have for past alleged attacks, but the nature of such evidence, and how it is obtained, is likely to mean that it will never be made publicly available. In the wake of the Iraqi WMD scandal, such information will always be suspect and tainted with allegations of political bias.

6. Reactions

About the only thing that can be counted on is the reaction of the international community. While condemnation has been swift, it is consistently couched with the cautious caveat of “if confirmed …” Barring a confession from one of the parties, such a confirmation may never be forthcoming, and French Foreign Minister Fabius may never have to explain, exactly, what he means by “force” without ground troops.

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25 comments
JayPee
JayPee

EVERYONE: Symptoms are consistent with Chlorine gas poisoning!!!!!! I believe there is a high likelihood that one of those Syrian missiles hit a chlorine tank. PLEASE: don't start lobbing cruise missiles from a ship thousands of miles away. Those precision missiles are not precise and those allied missiles will hit another chlorine tank causing another incident that we will then blame on Syria.

DO ASK: you local fireman about the threats of the nearest chlorine tank to where you live. Those tanks ARE extremely dangerous!! Firemen are well versed on local gases they may have to encounter.

paramendra1
paramendra1

The line has been crossed. It is time for Libya like action. 

MeHiMbdexp
MeHiMbdexp

this wil be the first time when islamist  rebels will produce a complete false narrative ?

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

For a change,the Russians have outsmarted the West! Blind support for a UN resolution caused the disaster in Iraq and Libya. The Russians know that the West's support for the rag tag rebels, will result in more deaths, when these Jihadists come to power. Assad, no Angel, must be brought into any political settlement. The  use of Chemical weapons story is reminiscent of the lies we saw during the Kuwait  and Iraq invasion . The rebels are capable of such gruesome attacks as a speedy means to garner International support. De stabilizing regimes in the Middle East is easy but what follows is hard to control. Bravo Russia. A cautious approach shows Statesmanship

tetsuoii
tetsuoii

Most likely the chemical payloads were unwittingly seized from government stockpiles and stored in residential areas where rebels shield themselves. When rebels were shelled by government forces, the stashed weapons exploded and killed the whole community. It was an accident, and neither rebels nor government are directly responsible.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Materials implicating the forces of Syrian president Bashar Assad in chemical weapons use near Damascus were prepared prior to the alleged incident on August 21, the Russian foreign ministry said. Moscow continues to monitor closely the event surrounding the “alleged”chemical attack near Damascus, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, said in a statement. “We’re getting more new evidence that this criminal act was of a provocative nature,” he stressed. “In particular, there are reports circulating on the Internet, in particular that the materials of the incident and accusations against government troops had been posted for several hours before the so-called attack. Thus, it was a pre-planned action.” The Damascus chemical attack accusations indicate the launch of “another anti-Syrian propaganda wave” and, in this context, the calls on the UN Security Council to immediately use force in Syria “heard from some EU capitals” are “unacceptable”, Lukashevich said.

http://rt.com/news/syria-chemical-prepared-advance-901/

billorights
billorights

Look, I'm no supporter of Assad, but the Obama administration has been trying to frame Syria with chemical weapons use since day one.

Besides, let us ask ourselves why the Syrians would use chemical weapons when they are winning this war, and understand the consequences of using them.

Anyone remember this?...

Google:

examiner hacked-e-mails-reveal-washington-approved-plan-to-stage-syria-chemical-attack

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

August 23, the Day of military glory of Russia.

70 years ago completed the largest tank battle in history of wars.

The battle lasted 50 days and nights, from July 5 to August 23, 1943.

Kursk was the last major offensive by Nazi troops on the Eastern Front.

TayforMusa
TayforMusa

ان الاسد يقوم بهذة الاعمال الفذرة لحماية نظامة

akilah_l
akilah_l

Its so simple and clear. If Assad's forces weren't responsible, they would happily and joyfully let inspectors in. Why is the world still asking if it was a chemical attack!? How ridiculous!   

zoeymis
zoeymis

It appears that Bush has been vindicated, as maybe they were right and that Sadam did indeed get this WMD's out of Iraq into Syria.  How else did Syria get them?

JackTheLad
JackTheLad

If the rebels were to blame - as Assad and his apologists claim, with zero evidence - then the Syrian government should be falling over themselves to let the UN inspectors do their job. Are they though? Not a chance.

Instead, incredulously, Assad's forces are actually bombing the hell of the very area, Ghouta, that this atrocity took place. Could the Syrian regime be any more callous than raining terror on the children who have already had to suffer - seeing tiny brothers and sisters choking, gassed to death? Why would the supposedly caring Syrian regime, as they themselves claim to be, possibly want to do that to their own people, regardless of anything they claim with their denials? 

Why would the Syrian government want to heavily bomb this area if it isn't to destroy evidence?  

From the Syrian government there is only flat broke denial, prevention of the UN inspectors getting to the site, destruction of evidence, and inhuman indifference as to suffering of the Syrian people.

Looking at the way the Syrian government is acting, there can be one realistic answer, and that's Assad's forces carried out this horrific crime. In which case something must be done to stop him. "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

ClemKadoodlehopper
ClemKadoodlehopper

@akilah_l Well, they did let the inspectors in, they were in Damascus when it occurred.  Ergo Sum, your point proves the Assad Regime non-complicit.  Epic Fail argument.

sampa1961
sampa1961

@akilah_lIt is not so ridiculous, It is not if CW were used but who used them. Confirming the use of CW could and will give the EU, and the US an excuse to attack Syria, Let us not forget that Islamists rebels have shown themselves to be capable of committing atrocities and they are the beneficiary of such an attack.

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@zoeymis Syria is since many years known to have had chemical weapon.  They are not iraqi.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@zoeymis I believe the point there is that they weren't in Iraq when the U.S. invaded on that pretext.  It's not vindication.  It's an excuse for invading a sovereign country and throwing it into civil war (as it is today) by removing a relentless dictator - who wielded power without mercy.  That's all that can keep them in line.

As for Syria, they're a major supporter of Russia (and the U.S.S.R. before the demise of that republic).  Russia probably supplied them with chemical weapons (among ALL of the other military hardware they currently use) in exchange for their warm water port in Damascus.  Since it's the ONLY warm water port available to the Russians, the Russians are going to do anything they can to keep it.  Anything includes supplying their "allies" with chemical weapons.

So appearances can be deceiving.  The chemical weapons most likely came from Russia.  Unless they can be traced definitively, there's nothing that  "appears" to be anything - especially where Bush was concerned.  

The U.S. attacked Iraq on a pretext that proved to be a lie.  Iraq had NO WMD's.  That much has been proven.  They had no nuclear capabilities and no nuclear ambitions, either. We wasted ten trillion dollars (the estimated final cost of the Iraq war ALONE - 2 1/2 times the total American cost of World War II in today's dollars)  and tens of thousands of American lives (not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives) for NOTHING.

This explains how else Syria got them, and that it was FAR AND AWAY more likely that they got them from Russia (or even the USSR) than from Iraq.    This isn't rocket science.  This isn't a deep, dark secret.  This information is freely available to anyone with an Internet connection, Google and a functioning brain.

That you concluded something with no proof, no merit and little feasibility proves that you can lead a person to knowledge but you can't make them THINK!

sampa1961
sampa1961

@JackTheLad It is not if CW were used but who used them. Confirming the use of CW could and will give the EU, and the US an excuse to attack Syria, Let us not forget that Islamists rebels have shown themselves to be capable of committing atrocities and they are the beneficiary of such an attack.