Over the last several days, Assad’s forces have been bombarding the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, as well as the cities of Zamalka, Saqba, Jisreen, and Al-Mleiha. The areas of Ain Tarma and Jobar have also been mentioned. Syrian activists claim the bombardment has been primarily mortars and multiple rocket launchers, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims that in addition to land-based rockets, there has been aerial bombardment of Mou’adamiya.
It was in Eastern Ghouta that the first claims of chemical weapons use began. Initial casualty estimates ranged from a few dozen to 1300. Present estimates are between 500 and 650 dead, according to Reuters. As time has gone on, extensive photographic and video evidence has begun to come out that, unlike previous claims of chemical weapons use in Syria, this is definitely not unfounded. There are a lot of bodies, none showing any signs of bullet, shrapnel, or blast wounds. At least one boy can be seen with froth coming out of his nose and mouth, and what appear to be chemical burns on his skin. The agent in question is unknown.
The Assad government has denied responsibility for the attack. The Russian government has called it a “provocation” launched by the rebels, especially in light of the fact that a 20-member UN delegation, led by a Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Damascus on Sunday, to investigate the 13 previous alleged uses of chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, which has now been estimated to have cost 100,000 lives already.
Whether or not the rebels or the government were responsible for this attack is still in question. Government forces had targeted Al-Qaeda-linked forces in the vicinity of Zamalka back in December. While the Long War Journal calls into question why casualties have been shown but no delivery system, Brown Moses Blog has found pictures of munitions allegedly connected with not only this attack, but other claimed chemical weapons attacks.
These are not readily identifiable as any known munitions; they appear to be unique to Syria. Nor do any of them appear exactly alike. The rebels are claiming they are government-used, but as with many things coming out of this conflict, separating fact from propaganda becomes difficult.
While most voices (to include voices in the halls of power in the West) are accusing the Assad regime of using the weapons, especially as the areas affected were already under government bombardment, questions as to which side was responsible are still open. In July, 2012, a Turkish jihadist site posted video claiming that Islamist rebel forces had obtained chemical weapons from a military base in Allepo. In December, Al Nusra forces seized the Sheikh Suleiman Base in Aleppo, which was supposed to be one of Assad’s chief chemical weapons depots. Al Nusra operatives were arrested in May in Adana by Turkish anti-terrorism forces with 2 kg of sarin, and Iraqi security forces broke up an AQI cell in Baghdad in June that was attempting to manufacture chemical weapons.
French, British, and Turkish politicians are already calling for action against Assad, based on this attack. Russia has already said it will block any UN resolution to intervene.
The questions have been raised, even by a former UN weapons inspector, Rolf Ekeus, who worked in Iraq in the 1990s, as to whether Assad is really dumb enough to utilize chemical weapons while the UN inspectors are in the country? The timing seems off. While it is of course possible that Assad, whose father butchered the city of Hama to put down the Alawite rebellion there, would use chemical weapons, it is equally possible that the rebels either conducted the attack themselves, or had a cache hit in the bombardment. Whether we will ever find out for certain remains to be seen.