Is a Desperate Assad Lashing Out With Chemical Weapons?

The alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria last week garnered international attention and prompted the UN—after receiving requests from both Syria’s government and opposition—to initiate an official investigation into the incident.

The attack, launched via a rocket allegedly containing “chemical materials,” was reported in Khan al-Assal—a village in Aleppo province—where 16 people were killed instantly. The death toll has since risen to 31. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the leading umbrella organization for the opposition, reported a second chemical attack in rural suburbs outside Damascus, though the number affected is still unknown.

Whether chemical weapons were actually used—and which party would be responsible—remains unverified. Both the Syrian government and the opposition accuse the other of using chemical weapons and propagandizing the attacks.

Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari implored UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to form a “specialized, independent and neutral technical mission” to investigate the opposition’s involvement in the Aleppo incident, which was first reported by the state-run news agency SANA as an attack by “terrorists,” the term the regime uses to refer to rebels. Jaafari also claimed that the government was “not aware of a second attack” in Damascus and insinuated that the SNC was using the Damascus attack to distract the UN from Aleppo.

The opposition denies the regime’s claims. A Free Syrian Army spokesman was quoted by Middle East Online as saying that, “We have neither long-range missiles nor chemical weapons. And if we did, we wouldn’t use them against a rebel target.” The opposition also requested that the UN investigate the attack, a view that Western countries such as the United States, France, and Britain support.

During a debate in the UN Security Council, France insisted that both incidents in Aleppo and Damascus should be investigated as part of the official inquiry and that the UN should also investigate whether or not the Syrian regime possesses chemical weapons. However, Russia—who backs the regime and claims to have evidence that rebels are behind the chemical attack—responded that such an inquiry echoed Iraq’s inspection a decade ago and that the United States, France, and others were “launching propaganda balloons” and engaging in “delaying tactics.”

Crossing Red Lines

The attacks—coming after an unverified chemical attack in Homs last December—could be significant because their use, if confirmed, would mark a new stage in the Syrian war and could spur the United States to intervene.

U.S. President Barack Obama has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be “totally and completely unacceptable” and would constitute a “red line,” which if crossed would be a “tragic mistake” with “consequences.” Though Obama has yet to specify what these consequences entail, many have interpreted his speech to indicate some form of military intervention, whether putting troops on the ground or arming the opposition. At a news conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama reiterated this stance, saying, “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”

However, other U.S. officials have expressed skepticism that chemical weapons were deployed. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee that, “So far, we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used … But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports.”

In addition to the official UN inquiry, U.S. intelligence agencies are also investigating the attacks. The conflict in Syria, however, compounds the difficulties of conducting any investigation in the country. In an interview with NBC, Ralf Trapp—a specialist on chemical and biological weapons—noted that it could take “weeks” for the UN to pull together a team to investigate and “each day lost will influence the speed with which the investigation can be concluded… because as more time elapses before biological sampling occurs, more sophisticated DNA and other toxicological testing is required.”

Not to mention, the investigation team would need to be able to get to—and operate within—Aleppo safely, which would largely depend upon cooperation from both state and rebel agents.

UPDATE

Al Arabiya reports:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed a Swedish professor who was a U.N. chemical weapons inspector in Iraq and now works at a research institute that deals with chemical incidents to head the U.N. fact-finding mission that will investigate allegations of the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and Focal Points.