Following Alleged Sarin Attack |

Defense Minister: Assad Used Chemical Weapons Multiple Times in Syria

But Western experts are skeptical that nerve gas was used Wednesday, and describe other viable scenarios.

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Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Wednesday that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons multiple times in its conflict against rebel forces.

Speaking at a press briefing to military correspondents, Ya'alon responded to reports that non-conventional weapons were used in an attack on districts east of Damascus Wednesday morning. While he did not specifically relate to the morning's reports, the defense minister said, “The civil war in Syria is continuing, with one hundred thousand dead, and, not for the first time, the regime is employing chemical weapons. This is a life-and-death struggle between a regime representing the Alawite minority and a disunited opposition. The end is not yet in sight, and even the fall of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad would not end this conflict.”

The reports of shelling chemical agents, presumably sarin, came in the midst of a visit by a team of UN inspectors who had arrived in Damascus to investigate the previous use of such lethal weapons in Syria.

The number of casualties from the alleged attack is unclear, but estimates have ranged from dozens to 1,300 killed, depending on the source. Both the Syrian government and army have tirelessly denied that such an attack took place.

The central evidence of the alleged use of chemical weapons is the fact that bodies shown in the footage posted on the Internet do not show any clear signs of external trauma, leading to the conclusion that the cause of death was some form of respiratory trauma or asphyxiation. Some of the casualties showed signs of convulsions and, in at least one case, contracted pupils, which are both symptoms of exposure to nerve agents.

However, Western experts on chemical warfare who have examined at least part of the footage are skeptical that weapons-grade chemical substances were used, although they all emphasize that serious conclusions cannot be reached without thorough on-site examination.

Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the U.S. Army's Chemical Corps and a leading private consultant, pointed out a number of details absent from the footage so far: "None of the people treating the casualties or photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear," he says, "and despite that, none of them seem to be harmed." This would seem to rule out most types of military-grade chemical weapons, including the vast majority of nerve gases, since these substances would not evaporate immediately, especially if they were used in sufficient quantities to kill hundreds of people, but rather leave a level of contamination on clothes and bodies which would harm anyone coming in unprotected contact with them in the hours after an attack. In addition, he says that "there are none of the other signs you would expect to see in the aftermath of a chemical attack, such as intermediate levels of casualties, severe visual problems, vomiting and loss of bowel control."

Steve Johnson, a leading researcher on the effects of hazardous material exposure at England's Cranfield University who has worked with Britain's Ministry of Defense on chemical warfare issues, agrees that "from the details we have seen so far, a large number of casualties over a wide area would mean quite a pervasive dispersal. With that level of chemical agent, you would expect to see a lot of contamination on the casualties coming in ,and it would affect those treating them who are not properly protected. We are not seeing that here."

Additional questions also remain unanswered, especially regarding the timing of the attack, being that it occurred on the exact same day that a team of UN inspectors was in Damascus to investigate earlier claims of chemical weapons use. It is also unclear what tactical goal the Syrian army would have been trying to achieve, when over the last few weeks it has managed to push back the rebels who were encroaching on central areas of the capital. But if this was not a chemical weapons attack, what then caused the deaths of so many people without any external signs of trauma?

"One alternative is that a large concentration of riot control agents were used here, which could have caused suffocation of large numbers of people who were pressed together in a bunker or underground shelter," says Gwyn Winfield, a veteran researcher and editor of CBRNe World, a professional journal the effects of chemical, biological and nuclear warfare. While riot-control substances, mainly various types of tear gas, are usually deployed in small quantities using hand-grenades, they can be used in much larger quantities in artillery shells or even dropped in barrels from aircraft as the U.S. Army did in Vietnam, trying to flush the Vietcong out of its underground bunkers. In large concentrations, these substances can cause suffocation, especially in closed spaces where many of the Syrian families would have been hiding from the bombing.

Another possible explanation for the casualties is that a large bomb, or a number of bombs, created a fireball that sucked the air out of the nearby building for a short period of time, causing the asphyxiation of those inside. The Syrians have extensively used fuel-air bombs, which create a large vacuum beneath the blast and could have lead to many such casualties.

The Syrian rebels (and perhaps other players in the region) have a clear interest in presenting this as the largest chemical attack by the army loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad to date, even if the cause was otherwise, especially while the UN inspectors are in the country. It is also in their interest to do so whilst U.S. President Barack Obama remains reluctant to commit any military support to the rebels, when only the crossing of a "red line" could convince him to change his policy.

The rebels and the doctors on the scene may indeed believe that chemical weapons were used, since they fear such an attack, but they may not have the necessary knowledge and means to make such a diagnosis. The European Union demanded Wednesday that the UN inspectors be granted access to the new sites of alleged chemical attacks, but since this is not within the team's mandate, it is unlikely that the Syrian government will do so.

'Prepare for prolonged war'

Following his comments on Syria, Ya’alon spoke to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. According to a press statement released by Ya’alon’s bureau, the two discussed “the developments of the last few days in the Middle East.” A press statement of the U.S. Department of Defense said that the two discussed the ongoing violence in Syria, including the latest reports on the use of chemical weapons, and the situations in Egypt and Iran. The statement also said that Hagel and Ya’alon agreed to continue their intensive dialogue relating to “the challenges facing the United States and Israel.”

Last week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Israel and the West Bank. During his meeting with Ya’alon, the defense minister told him that “we should prepare for a prolonged civil war in Syria." In his briefing, Ya’alon said that the assessment among defense officials is that the conflict in Syria has now assumed global dimensions, with one side supported by Russia and the other by the United States. “The regime cannot rout the opposition, nor can it be defeated by the rebels."

"The blood count is constantly rising,” added Ya’alon. “This is no longer a local Syrian issue; It reflects the frontline of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.”

Ya’alon also referred to developments in Egypt, saying, “We have all been observing the changes taking place there in recent days. Events there are leading to a sharp confrontation between the defense establishment and Islamic elements, with nightly terror attacks in Sinai carried out by global Jihadi elements.”

Ya’alon described the Sinai attack on 25 Egyptian security personnel on their way to a vacation as a serious incident, saying that defense officials in Israel are closely following the situation there. “Accordingly, there is a more substantial reinforcement of our own forces on that border, to counter any potential threats.”

The defense minister reviewed the security situation on the Syrian border, claiming that 80 percent of the buffer zone is now in the hands of the opposition. Most of them are not affiliated with Jabhat Al-Nusra, a group that is part of the global Jihad movement. This group, which is linked to Al-Qaida, “is acting independently in the context of its global outlook, in an attempt to gain control of the area.”

The defense minister also discussed the implications of the Syrian conflict for Lebanon. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria, explained Ya’alon, who “are fighting alongside the Syrian army, aided by Iran with money, ammunition, weapons and training.” The main areas of confrontation in Lebanon are now in Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli. The defense minister added, “There are some Sunni elements that are using Lebanon as a base for carrying out hostile attacks.”

Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, Douma, near Damascus, August 21, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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