Support our mission

DAMASCUS, Syria — Reports about poison gas causing the deaths of hundreds of residents on the outskirts of Syria’s embattled capital have once again dramatically highlighted the dangers posed by the country’s stocks of chemical weapons, which until now have not been used in any significant quantities during the 2 ½-year civil war.

Estimates of the death toll have varied widely, with some opposition activists claiming that more than 1,300 have perished in the attacks early Wednesday, while others put the figure at about 100.

The Syrian government admitted it mounted a major offensive to clear rebel-held districts on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, but emphatically rejected the rebels’ claims that toxic gases had been used.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate probe into the allegations, and a U.N. team of inspectors that arrived in Damascus on Sunday is seeking access to the affected areas.

If it is proven to be true, the attack would amount to the deadliest chemical weapons strike since 1988, when about 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja died after an attack by Saddam Hussein’s forces at the height of the Iraq-Iran war.

A journalist who toured the government-held areas of eastern Damascus on Wednesday saw nothing unusual to indicate that such weapons had been used against the civilian population just hours earlier. Despite a heavy overnight bombardment of the rebel-held suburbs around Ghouta, shops and offices in nearby mainly Christian neighborhoods such as Kasaa were operating normally and streets were packed with pedestrians and the usual traffic jams.

Over the past month, Kasaa has regularly been hit by harassing mortar fire, causing dozens of casualties. The entrances of local churches are lined with death notices of parishioners who died in the shelling, and local residents — together with both Orthodox and Roman Catholic clerics — complained loudly that the rebels were intent on the “ethnic cleansing” of Christian communities in eastern Damascus.

The residents also criticized the government and military for failing to push the insurgents further into the countryside, despite a series of battlefield successes elsewhere in recent months.

President Barack Obama has said that the regime’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” — although he has not specified what action would follow if the line is crossed.

Washington has claimed that the Syrian military used small amounts of chemical arms in the north of the country last year, killing more than 100 people.

The U.S. military has reportedly drawn up plans to neutralize the chemical arsenal in case Assad’s regime collapses and to prevent it from falling into the hands of jihadists who have increasingly been spearheading the rebellion. A headquarters unit and several hundred other troops — along with a detachment of F-16s and several batteries of Patriot missiles — have been deployed to Syria’s southern neighbor, Jordan, to be on hand for such an eventuality.

But amid the claims and counterclaims by the opposing sides in the war that has already taken more than 100,000 lives, experts and diplomats have pointed out that the main threat posed by chemical weapons actually comes from the possibility that jihadists or other radical groups fighting the regime could get their hands on part of Syria’s arsenal. They discount the possibility that President Bashar al-Assad’s military would use toxic agents against Israel, Turkey, Jordan or any other of Syria’s neighbors, because the immediate reaction of the international community would spell the end of his rule.

But even if radical Islamist groups, such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra, were to somehow succeed in getting their hands on the heavily guarded toxic agents, their chances of attacking populations in the West or in allied countries would have minimal chances of success, said Omar Lamrani, a military analyst with Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm.

The radicals have no experience in handling such agents, which are notoriously fickle and which can pose more danger to the users than the intended target. Furthermore, he said, they have no effective way of deploying them.

“In a broad sense, chemical weapons have more of a psychological effect than a real military value, because they need virtually perfect conditions to achieve success,” Lamrani said. In Syria’s case, they’re essentially “a poor man’s answer” to Israeli’s nuclear arsenal, a deterrent not meant to threaten other states, he said.

“Assad understands full well that if these weapons were used by his forces or by his allies such as Hezbollah against Western nations or their allies, it would mean an end to his regime,” Lamrani said.

Russia, which has backed Assad throughout the war, has already accused the insurgents of staging Wednesday’s incident, describing it as a “provocation” designed to spark Western military intervention against the regime at a time when government forces had inflicted a series of battlefield defeats on the insurgents.

Diplomats based in Damascus also expressed skepticism about the alleged use of the weapons on the very edge of the capital.

A European diplomat who declined to be identified said it would be “inexplicable” for the regime to have used them in such a brazen fashion, only days after the arrival of the U.N. inspectors and just a few kilometers from the hotel housing them. Syrian officials have maintained they invited the U.N. inspectors in order to prove to the international community that it was the rebels who had used “home-made” gases against villagers who supported the government in the north of the country.

“Chemical weapons are a double-edged sword, and practically useless on the battlefield unless used against massed armies as happened in World War I,” said Ed Blanche, a Beirut-based analyst and a member of London’s International Institute for Security Studies. “They’re not game-changers.”

He noted that Saddam Hussein’s warplanes and artillery had made repeated strikes against Halabja in 1988 for several hours in order to achieve the concentrations of poison gas needed to kill large numbers of unprotected civilians.

Blanche said their use at this stage also would be particularly embarrassing to Syria’s close allies such as Russia or Iran, where a new reformist president is seeking to improve relations with the West.

“Even for Assad’s regime it would be outrageous to use chemical weapons in those circumstances,” he said.


Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up