The biggest and worst news of the Syrian civil war to date is the latest reports that hundreds, possibly thousands, of Syrian civilians have been killed by chemical weapons. The reports are many, varied, confusing and contradictory, as have been the world’s reactions.
Here’s a non-comprehensive round-up, starting with the reports about the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces:
Syria’s opposition accused President Bashar Assad‘s forces of gassing many hundreds of people – by one report as many as 1,300 – on Wednesday in what would, if confirmed, be the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in decades.
Western and regional countries called for UN chemical weapons investigators – who arrived in Damascus just three days ago – to be urgently dispatched to the scene of one of the deadliest incidents of the two-year-old civil war.
Images, including some taken by freelance photographers and supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies including of small children, laid out on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injuries.
Reuters was not independently able to verify the cause of their death. The Syrian government denied that it had used chemical arms.
George Sabra, one of the leading opponents of Assad, said the death toll was 1,300 killed by poison gas rained down on suburbs east of Damascus.
“Today’s crimes are … not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime’s operations,” he told a news conference in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”
The JPost adds gruesome details:
If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces.
The Damascus Media Office monitoring center said 150 bodies were counted in Hammouriya, 100 in Kfar Batna, 67 in Saqba, 61 in Douma, 76 in Mouadamiya and 40 in Irbib, all suburbs of Damascus.
A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, earlier told Reuters the death toll collated from medical centers was at least 213.
“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” the nurse said. Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.
Extensive amateur video and photographs appeared on the Internet showing countless bodies, with victims choking, some of them foaming at the mouth, and no sign of outward injury.
A video purportedly shot in the Kafr Batna neighborhood showed a room filled with more than 90 bodies, many of them children and a few women and elderly men. Most of the bodies appeared ashen or pale but with no visible injuries. About a dozen were wrapped in blankets.
Other footage showed doctors treating people in makeshift clinics. One video showed the bodies of a dozen people lying on the floor of a clinic, with no visible wounds. The narrator in the video said they were all members of a single family. In a corridor outside lay another five bodies.
Khaled Omar of the opposition Local Council in Ain Tarma said he saw at least 80 bodies at the Hajjah Hospital in Ain Tarma and at a makeshift clinic at Tatbiqiya School in the nearby district of Saqba.
“The attack took place at around 3:00 a.m. (0000 GMT). Most of those killed were in their homes,” Omar said.
An activist working with Ahrar al-Sham rebel unit in the Erbin district east of the capital who used the name Abu Nidal said many of those who died were rescuers who were overcome with poison when they arrived at the scene.
“We believe there was a group of initial responders who died or were wounded, because when we went in later, we saw men collapsed on staircases or inside doorways and it looks like they were trying to go in to help the wounded and then were hurt themselves,” he told Reuters by Skype.
“At first none of us knew there were chemical agents because it seemed like just another night of air strikes, and no one was anticipating chemical weapons use, especially with UN monitors in town.”
Turning to the Syrian regime’s counter-arguments, they claim it’s all a fabrication:
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were “illogical and fabricated”. President Bashar Assad‘s officials have said they would never use poison gas against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Assad’s forces have used small amounts of sarin before, hence the current UN visit.
World reaction expressed plenty of outrage but not very much action:
Immediate international action is likely to be limited, with the divisions among major powers that have crippled efforts to quell 2 1/2 years of civil war still much in evidence.
Russia backed up Syrian government denials by saying it looked like a rebel “provocation” to discredit Assad.
Britain voiced the opposite view: “I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realize its murderous and barbaric nature,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said on a visit to Paris.
France, Britain, the United States and others called for an immediate on-site investigation by UN chemical weapons inspectors who arrived in the Syrian capital only this week. Moscow, urging an “objective” inquiry, said the very presence of that team suggested government forces were not to blame.
US President Barack Obama has made the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces a “red line” that in June triggered more US aid to the rebels. But previous, smaller and disputed cases of their deployment have not brought the all-out military intervention rebel leaders have sought to break a stalemate.
US Senator John McCain, a Republican critic of Obama’s Syria policy, said on Twitter that failure to penalize previous gas attacks had emboldened Assad: “No consequence for Assad using chemical weapons & crossing red line,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised he’s using them again.”
The Times of Israel explains the difficulty for the UN in investigating the chemical attacks (although they find it very easy to investigate Israel’s housing programs):
The UK, France and the Arab League said they would formally urge UN inspectors currently in Syria to investigate allegations that the Syrian army used chemical weapons on civilians outside Damascus on Wednesday morning.
French President Francois Hollande, speaking at a regular cabinet meeting, said the latest allegations “require verification and confirmation” and that he would ask the UN to go to the site “to shed full light” on the situation, government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said the UK planned to ask the United Nations Security Council to discuss the chemical weapon attack claims. The UN inspectors should be given access to the site, he said, and if the claims were verified, it “would be a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We are determined the people responsible will one day be held to account.”
The Arab League also urged the UN officials currently in Syria to “immediately” travel to the attack site and conduct an investigation.
However, Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, who leads the UN team in Syria, said that Syria would need to agree to such an inspection and that a formal request would have to come from a member state and go through UN channels.
The main question that arises from this chemical attack is why would Assad take such a huge risk with a UN inspection team in town?
Jeffrey Goldberg asks this question, and very incisively answers (emphases are mine):
It was a year ago, almost to the day, that President Barack Obama warned the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, not to deploy chemical weapons in his fight to stay in power. […] That would change my calculus,” Obama said. “That would change my equation.” […] Earlier, the president had said that Assad would be “held accountable by the international community” if he made the “tragic mistake” of using these weapons.
As we know now, Assad did use these weapons, on repeated occasions, in small-scale attacks. The administration’s response to these confirmed reports of chemical weapons use came in June, when it authorized the transfer of small arms to the rebels, small arms the administration acknowledged would not tip the rebellion toward success.
There was one other international response to the use of these chemical weapons: After much delay, the United Nations sent a team of chemical weapons investigators to Syria this week. That team is, right now, not far from the Ghouta region east of Damascus, where, overnight, the Syrian regime is alleged to have launched its largest chemical weapons attack to date.
The second question is, why would the Assad regime launch its biggest chemical attack on rebels and civilians precisely at the moment when a UN inspection team was parked in Damascus? The answer to that question is easy: Because Assad believes that no one — not the UN, not President Obama, not other Western powers, not the Arab League — will do a damn thing to stop him.
There is a good chance he is correct.
Ynet’s veteran military affairs reporter Ron Ben Yishai is of a similar opinion, writing that Assad senses the West’s weakness:
The Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons in the Damascus area Wednesday is indicative of self-confidence on the one hand and distress on the other. The self-confidence stems from the army’s operational successes in Homs and Hama, which included massive fire. The distress stems from the army’s inability to seize the rebel’s stronghold in Damascus’ eastern neighborhoods.
It must be remembered that the chemical weapons are being used as members of a UN delegation are confined to a Damascus hotel but can most likely see the chemical missiles being fired and the smoke billowing.
Even a cruel regime that is fighting for its life, as Assad’s is, would not dare violate international law in such a blatant way without being certain it would not pay a price for such immoral and inhumane conduct.
President Assad knows the American threat to take operative action in response to chemical attacks has dissipated. Obama has declared he does not plan to intervene militarily in Syria, and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, explained to Congress how difficult it would be for a US-led coalition to intervene in Syria or even impose a no-fly zone in the border areas.
…The Syrians sense weakness and are operating accordingly. They are also aware that Russia and China would support them in the Security Council in case the unimaginable happens and the US and Europeans do decide to act.
Thus, the use of chemical weapons has become almost routine in Syria. The regime is using these weapons although it is not in a situation where a sword is being held to its neck. The use of chemical weapons is meant to deter the opposition and the rebels, at times by attacking the non-combatant civilian population. This is a war crime that is taking place without any response from the international community.
Assad has ignored recent attacks attributed to Israel because he fears an Israeli response may put his regime and the entire Alawite sect in jeopardy. […] getting involved in a military confrontation with Israel may dramatically change the balance of power and break the existing status quo in Syria. The regime and the Alawites would suffer most from this.
This is why Assad has ignored the attacks the foreign press says were carried out by Israel and is not even considering attacking the Jewish state with chemical weapons. However, the Assad government is becoming less and less apprehensive about its use of chemical weapons, and should the regime feel that it has nothing to lose it may also use chemical weapons against Israel. For now there are no indications Assad plans to use weapons of mass destruction against Israel, but Jerusalem must remain vigilant and continue to closely monitor the events in Syria.
[…] Europe is condemning the chemical attacks but is not making any preparations to activate NATO. The US is losing its influence in the Middle East and it will not resolve the crisis either. Therefore, Israel can only trust itself, show restraint and refrain from intervening in the fighting. At the same time, Israel must also institute a policy of deterrence and make it clear that any crossing of the red line on the part of the Assad regime or the rebels will result in a fierce and uncompromising Israeli response.
The world’s impotent outrage would be amusing were it not so deadly serious. The implications especially for Israel are enormous. We have already seen rocket fire on Western Galilee and stray (or deliberate) mortar fire in the Golan. Seeing the UN stymied by its insistence on consensus means that it is highly unlikely that Assad will suffer any sanction for his war crimes, and if he does, it will be too little and certainly too late for his civilian victims.
And yet the UN has no such trouble reaching consensus when the issue of Israeli housing comes up.
We must remember to keep things in proportion after all: Israel housing bad, Syrian chemicals… maybe… shrug.