Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gotten rid of 80 percent of his chemical weapons, and is increasingly likely to hit a key deadline for the elimination of his entire arsenal by the end of the month. That good news is being partially overshadowed, however, by growing signs that Assad is still waging chemical attacks on communities in rebel-held areas of the country.
In a briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States has indications that a chemical attack, most likely chlorine, occurred in Syria earlier this month. "We have indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical" in the rebel-held town of Kfar Zeita, she said. "We are examining allegations that the government was responsible."
The official statement, while withholding final judgement, gives a veneer of credibility to long-running allegations by Syrian opposition activists that regime helicopters mounted a chlorine gas attack on the town of Kfar Zeita on April 11 and 12. Online videos posted by rebel activists at the time showed ghost-white adults and children struggling to breath in a field hospital. Syrian rebels say the incident injured dozens and is Assad's fourth such chemical attack in the past month alone.
The State Department comment follows a statement on Sunday by French President Francois Hollande that he has "information" that the Assad regime has continued to attack his people using chemicals weapons. Israel, another close U.S. ally, has also accused the regime of mounting new chemical strikes in the outskirts of Damascus on March 27.
"We have a few elements of information but I do not have the proof," Hollande told the Europe 1 radio station. "What I do know is what we have seen from this regime is the horrific methods it is capable of using and the rejection of any political transition."
Psaki gave no indication that the U.S. was investigating whether the attack was carried out by the rebels, which the Assad regime blames for the early April incident in Hama province, more than 120 miles north of Damascus.
If Monday's allegations about a new Assad chemical weapons attack prove accurate, they will cast a dark cloud over the September 2013 agreement that called for Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons to avert American military strikes designed to punish him for a massive chemical weapons attack in the city of Ghouta in August that killed hundreds of Syrians.
Under the revisited terms of the deal, Assad was supposed to remove or destroy his entire chemical arsenal by April 2014. That goal seemed unlikely to be met even a few weeks ago but the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body tasked with overseeing the elimination of Assad's arsenal, reported Sunday that 80 percent of Syria's chemical weapons material "has been removed or destroyed in-country." That positive news means Damascus may surprise Western observers and actually forfeit its chemical weapons on time.
Critics of the September deal seized on Monday's State Department announcement to accuse both Assad and his patrons in Moscow of violating the terms of the deal and call for new measures against Damascus. "If substantiated, it is clear that such attacks violate the spirit of the U.S. agreement with Russia for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and the Assad regime must finally be held accountable for it [sic] actions," Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said in a statement.
During the briefing, Psaki said the United States is collecting information on the attack and will share that information with other countries and the OPCW. Earlier in April, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said that allegations surrounding the Kfar Zeita attacks were thus far "unsubstantiated."
Regardless of the veracity of the potential new chemical attack, Syria's brutal civil war shows no signs of winding down. The conflict, now in its fourth year, has killed at least 150,000 people, according to some estimates. The vast majority of those deaths came at the hands of conventional weapons, but in recent months, opposition activists have held up a range of materials and YouTube videos purportedly showing chemical attacks by the regime. President Obama has called the use of such weapons a "red line." Assad has crossed it once. The question is whether he has done so again -- and what, if anything, Washington and its allies might do in response.