Are Chemical Weapons Being Used in Syria Again?

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April 17 2014 4:23 PM

Are Chemical Weapons Being Used in Syria Again?

What a difference half a year makes. Last August the United States nearly went to war in Syria over the use of chemical weapons. Now, with attention focused largely on Ukraine, the latest reports of the continuing use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country have barely aroused any notice at all.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Granted the two situations are extremely different in both type and severity. The death toll of the Ghouta sarin attack was in the hundreds. The latest attack, which the opposition Violations Documentation Center says took place last Friday in the opposition-controlled village of Kfar Zeita near Damascus and involved chlorine gas dropped in canisters from a helicopter, killed only two, but sickened hundreds of others.

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All the same, chlorine was used as a chemical weapon during World War I and is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and its use—if it was by the government—would certainly violate Syria’s agreement to dismantle and remove its chemical weapons from the country.

Syrian state television, meanwhile, is blaming the attack on the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra.

Eliot Higgins, who at his blog Brown Moses has become a go-to source for information on the weaponry used in the Syrian conflict, says the attack is a rare case of both the government and opposition acknowledging that an attack did take place, but he pokes some holes in the Syrian government’s narratives:  

In the videos and photographs this is specifically described as being dropped from a helicopter. Again, there's no evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra have a helicopter, and considering Kafr Zita has been the focus of Syrian military activity for the past weeks (including the first deployment of BM-30 launched cluster munitions) it seems unlikely the Syrian military would have missed a mystery helicopter flying overhead.  One also has to ask how Syrian State TV could state Chlorine was used without access to the site, a pro-opposition area.

Higgins wonders whether the claims may have been inspired by a widely circulated but highly disputed recent article by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books, which alleged that Nusra, not the government, was responsible for the August sarin attacks.

For now, the U.S. is not taking a strong stance on the incident, with U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power calling the reports “unsubstantiated.”

About half of Syria’s chemical stockpile has been removed so far, though the country has missed several of the deadlines imposed by a Russian-brokered deal last August. Chlorine was apparently not on the list of chemical weapons the Syrian government declared.

Having reached what he calls a “turning point” in the ongoing fighting after some recent gains, Assad may be feeling a bit more confident in what he can get away with.