The last thing President Obama wanted to do, on his first day in Israel, was scupper reports about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The way he phrased his response to the first question asked of him about widely reported allegations that such weapons had been used in Aleppo and Damascus was designed to rebut claims advanced by the Assad regime and, at least initially, by the Russian Foreign Ministry, that it was Syria’s rebels who had crossed the president’s ever-flexible “red line” for U.S. intervention. Obama was “deeply skeptical,” he said, that the rebels had done any such thing. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s newly appointed minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, begged to differ with the visiting president, stating hours prior to Obama’s joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that "it is apparently clear that chemical weapons were used.” Steinitz didn’t elaborate or name the culprit. The last 72 hours has been the predictable carnival of confused claims and counter-claims.
As best I can piece together the sequence of events, here is what happened. On Tuesday, state-controlled Syrian Arab News Network (SANA) claimed that 'terrorists' had fired a rocket on regime targets in Khan al-Assal, in Aleppo, in the early hours of the day. It then broadcast images of victims frothing at the mouth and complaining of respiratory failure, claiming that 25 had been killed and 110 wounded. Syria’s Information Minister Imran Zouabi said that a rocket had been fired from Kafer Da’al, which is about 50 kilometers north of Khan al-Assal. There is no evidence that the rebels possess any chemical weapons delivery systems.
And yet, as James Miller of EA Worldview reminds us:
“Hours before the state media reports, opposition Facebook pages already had reports of a chemical weapons attack in Khan al Asal [sic]. There were also early reports of a rocket falling on the city and causing death and destruction, although the first tweet that mentions a rocket does not mention chemical weapons. Soon after this, there was a report that the rocket missed the opposition-held areas and fell on a pro-Assad rally, releasing the toxic gas.”
U.S. and NATO radar and satellite intelligence now suggest that no rockets were reported incoming at the alleged time of the attack, prompting “preliminary” conclusions from unnamed officials that no chemical weapons attack took place. “The fact that it’s not a weapon doesn’t mean it’s not some creative use of a caustic agent,” one anonymous official told CNN, citing the possibility that chlorine might have been used. The odor of chlorine was reported in early dispatches from Syria and an early theory bombinating on that ever-reliable medium Twitter was that the compound’s use could implicate the opposition because last December the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra overran the Syrian-Saudi Chemicals Company’s toxic chlorine factory near Safira, east of Aleppo.
Notably, however, the opposition also recorded a second chemical attack, this one in al-Oteibah, in a region just outside Damascus called East Ghouta. This is rebel-held territory right in the middle of a number of intensely fought-over territories. Al-Oteibah lies north of Damascus International Airport, which has been under sporadic attack by the Free Syrian Army for months, and south of Adra, which stand a a good chance of falling to the rebels soon. A regime army base was also recently sacked just east of al-Oteibah. But, as Miller notes, it is an insurgent stronghold that is relatively removed from the civilian population.
The Syrian Support Group (SSG), the Free Syrian Army’s only lobby group and licensed fundraiser in Washington, issued a press release Wednesday saying that the substance used in both attacks was Echothiophate, a chemical simulant used in insecticides. Exposure can cause vomiting, muscle, and nerve and respiratory spasms, symptoms similar to what you’d see after the use of nerve agents.
According to Dan Layman at the SSG, a rocket was launched from al-Qatifa, a neighborhood in Damascus, and landed in the al-Oteibah district close to the Damascus International Airport. Doctors who arrived and treated the victims confirmed the substance released was Echothiophate. These patients were apparently treated that same morning with Atropine and other drugs, Layman emailed me. Their conditions improved slightly in the morning before the same symptoms (suffocation, convulsions, and nausea) returned later that evening. SSG’s source, who Layman described as “our most reliable guy,” said that as of Wednesday night, the death toll from the al-Oteiba attack was between 60 and 70 people.
Here are two videos out of Damascus showing doctors treating victims of this attack and confirming the use of Atropine as a counteragent. In one, the physician says, “We are receiving cases of convulsions, fascicular contractions, bradycardia, and severe hypotension. Actually, the estimated [sic] chemicals that we are getting shelled by are organophosphates mostly.” Echothiophate is an organophosphate.
And if the administration of Atropine can be confirmed, then this would be a dead giveaway that some kind of lethal chemical agent, though not necessarily one proscribed by international treaties, had indeed been used in the two-year-old conflict.
I emailed Dr. Melissa Zolodz, a scientist specializing in analytical medical chemistry and biological mass spectrometry, asking if, judging from the cited symptoms, she thought Echothiophate was the likely compound disbursed. “From what data I can gather,” she emailed me back, “the breathing issues, the oral secretions, the bradycardia and hypotension, the facial myoclonus, etc. are consistent with a cholinergic agent, which Echothiophate is.” The fact that patients responded well to Atropine, she said, also support this theory. “It would be good to know the pupil size. That would give us the knowledge of an anticholinergic (dilated pupils) or cholinergic agent (small pupils) was used.”
The Aleppo attack, the SSG’s Dan Layman said, was the result of a second rocket fired from Damascus (the exact location is unknown) toward Aleppo. The missile, however, fell short of its intended target, an opposition-held neighborhood, and landed 1 kilometer from the Infantry Training Academy in Khan al-Assal in the western Aleppo suburbs. This is regime country and 16 people were killed and unknown number poisoned, according to Layman. The injured were taken to Aleppo University Hospital, which is still controlled by the regime.
If the Syrian Army did aim for and then miss its enemies, hitting instead its loyalists, this could account for state media’s presentation of the attack as rebel orchestrated.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, citing “information from Damascus,” issued this statement on Tuesday: “A case of the use of chemical weapons by the armed opposition was recorded early in the morning of March 19th in Aleppo province.” Yet by Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry had repudiated this apparent confirmation, with Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov saying: “The story concerning the use of chemical weapons in Syria must be meticulously investigated.” This climb-down followed the news that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will launch an investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, the scope and scale of which investigation is yet to be determined. Interestingly, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin insisted that only the episode in Aleppo be examined. “There is just one allegation of the use of chemical weapons,” Churkin said. “This is really a way to delay the need for immediate urgent investigation of allegations pertaining to March 19 by raising all sorts of issues.”
Syria and Russia have yet to acknowledge the Damascus attack at all.
The messaging from Washington also indicates that these events are being taken seriously and that different assessments are being made. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), the chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on CNN: “I have a high probability to believe that chemical weapons were used. We need that final verification, but given everything we know over the last year and a half, I would come to the conclusion that they are either positioned for use, and ready to do that, or in fact have been used.” Dianne Feinstein, Rogers’ counterpart in the Senate, gave this cryptic statement:“We’ve heard this in a classified session. This is highly classified information, and we’ve been advised to be very careful what we say. The White House has to make some decisions in this.” [Italics added.]
Former U.S. Syrian envoy Robert Ford, who sources tell me took “a beating” from inquisitive legislators in testifying on Capital Hill, first said that there was “no evidence to substantiate” the use of chemical weapons by either the regime or the opposition. Yet now Ford appears to be hedging, citing the need for more forensic spadework: “Because we cannot yet state with certainty that chemical weapons have been used in the last days, I cannot tell you what happened. I can tell you that we have a large team of people working on it right now.”
Britain, too, isn’t taking the regime’s assurances that it would never use WMD against its own people at face value. The Telegraph reported Wednesday that the Ministry of Defense would be sending chemical weapons suits and testing kits to the Syrian rebels.
Would Assad have calculated that by blaming the opposition for a chemical attack the West would somehow reverse course in its approach to the unfolding catastrophe in Syria rather than hasten a more exigent response to it? Yes. He still believes that the United States and foreign powers are in control of the rebellion (frankly, it isn’t even clear that the West retains any leverage over those rebels it has recognized and is indirectly or directly arming) and that any propaganda blackening that rebellion somehow redounds to his own benefit. Of course it doesn’t. The loosing by either side of chemical weapons on a civilian population in Syria would almost certainly lead to an international military intervention, and the realization of such a contingency could account for Russia’s about-face as well for Moscow and Damascus’s desperate attempt to minimize the scope and scale of what the U.N. now says it intends to find out for itself.
If it should emerge, from the U.N. investigation or from further U.S. and NATO intelligence analysis, that the regime exposed hundreds of people to Echothiophate in Aleppo and Damascus, then we can draw our own preliminary conclusion: Assad is dancing up and down Obama’s red line, experimenting with deadly but “technically” non-banned chemical weapons with the express purpose of trying to scapegoat the opposition or terrorize it into submission. Consider again the position of Al-Oteibah in the midst of several 'hot' zones on the outskirts of the capital where rebels are gaining here all the time. One begins to appreciate that Assad has his own red line for how far into the lion’s den he’ll allow his enemies to approach before he reaches for his last resort.
The original version of this article listed Dan Layman as Dan Byman, mistakenly reported rockets as Scud missiles, and included a source's name that has since been removed to protect his identity. NOW regrets the errors.