Was the first use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war carried out by rebel forces fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad?
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The mysterious explosion last Tuesday near the city of Aleppo, which killed 26 people and wounded dozens, was swiftly labeled by Western intelligence agencies as a chemical incident perpetrated by forces loyal to Assad.
U.S. President Barack Obama was even asked during a press conference in Israel whether the incident would change his administration's non-intervention policy on Syria. But as more information passes, a different picture is beginning to emerge. The explosion claimed the lives of Syrian Armed Forces soldiers who are apparently loyal to Assad, and the Syrian government was quick to demand an international investigation of the incident.
These two facts would indicate that Assad's forces were not behind the attack.
In addition, from what has been released of the physical and medical evidence, it seems that some of the injuries were caused by chlorine. While chlorine gas has been used in the past as a weapon, mainly in the First World War, the chemical arsenals of nations developing these weapons have for decades focused mainly on mustard gas and various types of nerve agents, which, had they been used last week, would have caused different symptoms that were not observed.
It appears that the target of the attack was a checkpoint manned by Syrian Armed Forces, which reinforces the theory that rebel forces, probably jihadists known to be operating around Aleppo, were behind it. A report by Britain's Channel Four, based on Syrian military sources, claims that the weapon used in the attack may have been a missile carrying a warhead filled with chlorine mixed into a saline solution. The Syrian source also said that a factory that manufactures chlorine is located nearby.
If these claims are true, it would seem to prove that the jihadists have the technical expertise necessary to insert chlorine gas into a warhead and seal it so that the gas does not leak during launch but only upon impact with the target. Another possibility is that it was a conventional missile that hit a chlorine storage tank, causing leaking gases that resulted in casualties.
Not all intelligence experts share the deep concern over a possible use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces. The large stockpiles of chemical substances held by the Syrian regime are closely guarded by the Air Force Intelligence, a branch extremely close to the Assad family, and, despite losing control of wide swathes of Syrian territory, the regime is making extreme efforts to safeguard these assets. Even though the regime has the capability to launch a chemical attack using artillery shells, warplanes and missiles, they normally store chemical substances separately and it is expected that Western intelligence agencies would identify any attempt by the regime to prepare a large quantity of chemical warheads. In one case, a number of months ago, such a mixing operation was noted and the United States issued stern warnings to the Assad regime to desist.
According to a number of reports, American and perhaps also British special forces are willing to enter Syria to secure the chemical weapons stockpiles from bases in Jordan and Turkey should there be any sign that they are about to be captured or used by terror organizations. The Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army, which has among its ranks senior officers who defected from forces loyal to Assad, has also prepared a plan to take over the chemical bases in the case of the regime's sudden collapse.