Syrians Trade Blame on Alleged Chemical Weapons Attack

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
March 19 2013 1:44 PM

Syria Government, Rebels Blame Each Other for Alleged Chemical Weapons Attack

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A Syrian rebel crosses a street while trying to dodge sniper fire in the old city of Aleppo in northern Syria

Photo by JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian government and opposition groups in the country are trading accusations over an alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. According to Syrian state media, the unconfirmed attack killed at least 31 people, including 21 civilians and 10 soldiers. If true, this would represent a dramatic escalation in the 2-year Syrian civil war and the beginning of what many analysts have described is one of the worst case scenarios for an already devastating conflict. For now though, the news should be taken with a dose of caution.

Russia, an ally of Bashar al-Assad's regime, backed the government's claims. But according to both the Associated Press and CBS News, experts and officials in the United States and England so far don't see any credible evidence indicating that a rocket attack involving chemical weapons took place. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights did receive reports of a rocket attack in the area that killed at least 26 but had no information about chemical weapons. The potential use of chemical weapons has long been described as a "red line" for President Obama, and that's reflected in White House spokesperson Jay Carney's response to the reports. According to the BBC, while noting that there was "no evidence to substantiate" those claims, Carney alluded to non-specific "consequences" should the reports turn out to be true.

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While there's been no previous evidence suggesting that rebels have access to chemical weapons, the Syrian regime is believed to have nerve agents and mustard gas, along with SCUD missiles capable of deploying them. The Syrian government has a policy of neither confirming nor denying their chemical weapons capabilities.

A photographer for Reuters visited a hospital treating victims from the attack. His report lends some credence to rebel and regime reports of "suffocation" after the attack: 

A Reuters photographer said victims he had visited in Aleppo hospitals were suffering breathing problems and that people had said they could smell chlorine after the attack. "I saw mostly women and children," said the photographer, who cannot be named for his own safety. He quoted victims at the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital as saying people were dying in the streets and in their houses.

More than 70,000 have died in the Syrian conflict so far, and more than one million have fled the country.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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