Did Bashar Assad use chemical weapons?

Marea, Northern Syria — Ahmad Jabir gesticulated wildly when he heard the news. “This regime is crazy,” the 24 year old rebel fighter shouted. “When will the international community realize it will kill us all with gasses like the chemical weapons it fired today?”

Throughout Northern Syria, rumors that chemical weapons were used in an Aleppo neighborhood have everyone on edge.  Many worried that there would be no shelter from a regime that has unleashed all its weapons against a helpless population. But some confident voices emerged arguing the regime may have finally crossed a red line that will trigger international intervention. Amongst the fear and uncertainty, most simply believe that the episode is merely the latest proof that the world has abandoned Syrians to face their fate alone. 

In the city of Marea, news of last week’s attack on the Aleppo neighborhood of Khan Assal trickled in slowly. Rumors initially circulated that hundreds had died when the regime of President Bashar Assad launched a rocket armed with chemical weapons.

“It’s a massacre,” 31 year old Muhammad Shadi told The Media Line at a falafel stand.  Residents panicked, with a number of the few remaining families packing their belongings to head to Turkey. 

But as the day progressed and more details emerged, residents calmed down. News that only 26 died rather the hundreds many here claimed had perished eased fears. And when foreign governments issued statements that no use of chemical weapons was detected, people resumed their daily routines. 

The United States was quick to douse the claims.

“I have no information at this time to corroborate any claims that chemical weapons have been used in Syria,” Pentagon spokesman George Little declared.  Not all Western nations agreed.

“It is clear for us here in Israel” that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told CNN. 

Ever since the Syrian revolution devolved into an armed conflict, the international community has worried the regime would use its chemical weapons against the rebels.  Syria is believed to have the fourth largest chemical weapons arsenal in the world including mustard gas, Sarin and VX. According to former Israeli National Security Adviser, Uzi Arad, Syria has 1,000 tons of chemical agents. A dose of VX as small as 10 milligrams is considered lethal.

For more than a year, American President Barack Obama has warned the Syrian government that employing its arsenal of chemical weapons would have dire consequences.

“We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said in August 2012.

Rebels are hoping that he will act on those warnings. Ever since the Syrian military began strafing and shelling civilian areas, the opposition has urged the international community to intervene in the conflict. 

“Bashar is digging his own grave,” 21 year old fighter Jasim Bunni told The Media Line.  “Obama will not let him slaughter Syrians with these horrible weapons.”

The American president did not disappoint him. “I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer… The international community has to act on that.” Obama said in Jerusalem last week.

His strong words stirred hope in fighters whose confidence has been dashed by months of battlefield deadlock and low morale.

“If Obama gives us weapons, we can enter Damascus in a week,” exclaimed 23 year old Samir al-Hamawi in the nearby city of al-Bab. “We just need some help.”

Civilians who have borne the brunt of a war that has played itself out in populated areas were just as optimistic.  “This is Bashar’s gift we have been waiting for,” said Mustafa Sa’id, a 39 year old mechanic. “America and France promised us they would strike at him for this.”

But others who had seen previous hopes dashed by the international community’s inertia were less sanguine.

“No one will save us from this monster,” lamented 43 year old grocer Tariq Faris. “We are alone in a war that is destroying our lives.  Your nations speak a lot but do not act.”   

It is a refrain often heard in Syria.  As the death toll grows higher with the passing of every day, Syrians are slowly losing the small remaining hope that outside powers will intervene to stop the killing.  They no longer have faith that the glamorous international conferences and bold statements by presidents and leaders will save them.  For in the lion’s den that is Syria, they have come to realize that they can only count on themselves to end their nightmare.

Is Syria bluffing on chemical weapons?

As rebel forces move closer to Damascus, there are reports of activity in Syrian chemical weapons sites, raising fears in the region that Syria could use those chemical weapons. NBC News reported that the Syrian army has loaded bombs with precursors of Sarin nerve gas which could then be loaded onto planes.

Syrian officials dismissed the report as ludicrous.

“Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Maqdad said.

Despite his denials, U.S. officials issued harsh warnings about the consequences if Assad does decide to use them.

“Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a news conference after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

“And so as part of the absolute unity that we all have on this issue we have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account.”

The warnings come as the 20 months of fighting between Assad loyalists and rebels reached the outskirts of Damascus.

There is little question that Syria has large stocks of chemical weapons, although they have never officially acknowledged them. Syria is not a signatory to the chemical weapons treaty.

Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at Chatham House in London, believes that Syria is trying to send a message to the West that keeping the Assad regime in power means more stability for the region.

“When Syria says it would never use chemical weapons against its own people, the subtext is that they would use it against an invading force,” Shehadi told The Media Line. “They also imply that if the regime falls there is a high risk of these substances falling into the wrong hands. The regime is trying to frighten the West.”

Syria’s neighbors are also nervous. Israel fears Syria could give some of the chemical weapons to Hizbollah, the guerilla group in south Lebanon. Israeli officials admitted they are nervous.

“We are closely following the reports on chemical weapons in Syria,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line. “These reports are of obvious concern for all neighboring countries including Israel. Possible use of these weapons is absolutely unacceptable.”

The Atlantic magazine reported that Israel has asked Jordan for permission for a green light to attack Syrian chemical weapons facilities, but Jordan said “no.” The report said Israel could go it alone but does not want tensions with its neighbor.

A senior Israeli official would not confirm the report, but did say “there is close coordination with the Americans over the chemical weapons issue.”

Some Israeli analysts say it is doubtful that Syria would use chemical weapons, even if the regime was on its last legs.

“Assad knew that Western intelligence agencies would pick up the movement at the chemical weapons sites,” Eldad Pardo, an expert on Syria at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line. “The regime is trying to intimidate the insurgents and make it an international issue.”