U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts are looking into claims of a new and massive chemical weapons attack that's left hundreds dead. From the limited evidence they've seen so far, those reports appear to be accurate. And that would make the strike on the East Ghouta region, just east of Damascus, the biggest chemical weapons attack in decades.
The early analysis is based on preliminary reports, photography and video evidence, and conclusions are prone to change if and when direct access to the victims is granted. Over the past nine months, the Syrian opposition has alleged dozens of times that the Assad regime has attacked them with nerve agents. Only a handful of those accusations have been confirmed; several have fallen away under close scrutiny. But Wednesday's strike, which local opposition groups say killed an estimated 1,300 people, may be different.
"No doubt it's a chemical release of some variety -- and a military release of some variety," said Gwyn Winfield, the editor of CRBNe World, the trade journal of the unconventional weapons community.
While the Obama administration says it has conclusive proof that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the recent past, the White House has been reluctant to take major action in response to those relatively small-scale attacks. ("As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won't do anything," an American intelligence official told Foreign Policy earlier this week.) But this attack appears to be anything but small-scale. If allegations about this latest attack prove to be accurate, the strike could be the moment when the Assad regime finally crossed the international community's "red line," and triggered outside invention in the civil war that has killed over a hundred thousand people.
Videos and pictures allegedly taken from the Ghouta incident show young victims who are barely able to breathe and, in some cases, twitching. Close-up photos show their pupils are severely constricted. All of these are classic signs of exposure to a nerve agent like sarin. And sarin is the Assad regime's chemical weapon of choice.
"There's no smoking gun here, but it's all consistent with nerve gas exposure," a U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. "This video is consistent with all of the other ones where we believe it [chemical weapons use] actually happened."
The Syrian regime has called claims of the attack "absolutely baseless."
According to the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based firm that lobbies on behalf of the rebels, the attack was designed to soften positions in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta ahead of a ground attack and involved the deployment of four Grad 122mm rockets at about 2:20 a.m.
The group's media director, Dan Layman, told The Cable that a doctor treating patients on the ground reported that the chemical solution in the attacks were "extremely high" concentrations of sarin as opposed to more chemically-diluted attacks in previous months.
"Because of the intensity of the gas, a majority of victims were found with heavy respiratory secretions, myosis, and muscular spasms," Layman said, after speaking with the director of the Douma city medical office, a man who goes by the nom de guerre Khaled ad-Doumi. "Atropine, the chemical used to curb the effects of these chemical attacks, has had only limited effects."
However, Winfield, after examining video and photo evidence of the attack, doubted that pure sarin was involved. "There doesn't seem to be quite enough mucus or saliva for a pure organophosphate," he said, referring to the class of chemical to which nerve gases belong. "No doubt it's a chemical release of some variety ... But it's too weak for a pure sarin release."
Others are more skeptical that a nerve agent was used, such as Michael Elleman, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "One of the consequences of a fatal nerve attack is you lose all muscle control and therefore you defecate and you urinate all over yourself," he told The Cable. "And I didn't see evidence of the victims soiling themselves, if you will, which kind of puzzles me."
But he added that the attack does appear to have been a chemical one. "If indeed 600 [or more] people were killed, the attack would have had to involve a large amount of chemical agent," Elleman said. "Which means it would have had to be delivered in a very deliberate fashion, and that would be a strong indicator that it was deliberate use or not accidental use, or just spraying munitions, which may be what happened in the past – we don't know."
Still, the U.S. intelligence official said the attack did not seem to be the result of inhalation or tear gas. "If it was smoke inhalation, they'd be more sooty or scorched. If it was tear gas, you'd see skin inflammation around the mucus membranes."
Already, the scale of the allegations has prompted a stern response in Washington where Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of President Obama's "red line" remarks regarding chemical weapons use. The White House is now calling for a formal United Nations investigation. "The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons, near Damascus earlier today," Josh Earnest, deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement. "Today, we are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation."
In a statement, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon said he was "shocked to hear of the alleged use today of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus," and assured that a UN chemical weapons team in Damascus was discussing the matter with Syrian authorities.
The statement noted that the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is currently probing the alleged use of nerve gas in the village of Khan Al-Assal and two other undisclosed locations. However, it remains unlikely that Syria, which has refused previous requests for chemical weapons investigations made by Britain and France, will permit the inspectors to visit the new site. It is also uncertain whether the U.N. Security Council, which is deeply divided over Syria, will take any meaningful action.
In any event, the White House is already facing even more pressure from Congress to act decisively in response to the alleged allegations. "If reports are credible that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons resulting in the estimated deaths of hundreds of civilians, then clearly a red line has been crossed again," Democrat Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "If we are to salvage what remains of our credibility in the region, we must act soon."
-- with Colum Lynch and David Kenner