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Was There Just a Major New Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria?

 

CAIRO -- This morning, a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team woke up in the five-star Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Damascus. No more than a 15-minute drive away, in the capital's eastern suburbs, there were rumblings that the worst chemical weapons attack in decades was underway.

The information coming out of the Ghouta region, where the rebels enjoy significant support, is still unconfirmed by independent observers. But videos allegedly taken Wednesday in the area showed Syrians lying on the floor gasping for breath, medics struggling to save infants, and rows of bodies of those who had reportedly died in the attack (warning: the footage above is graphic). Syrian state media denied that chemical weapons had been used, attributing such stories to media channels that "are involved in the shedding of the Syrians' blood and supporting terrorism." But a preliminary examination of the footage by American intelligence officials and outside experts leads them to believe that chemical weapons were involved in the attack.

The opposition Local Coordination Committee reported that at least 755 people had been killed in the attack. If that figure is true, what is happening on the outskirts of Damascus today is the worst chemical weapons attack since then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unleashed poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people.

The U.N. chemical weapons inspection team, however, may find itself unable to make the short drive to the Ghouta region to investigate the attack. Under the terms that the team negotiated with President Bashar al-Assad's regime, their movement is severely restricted: They are allowed to visit the northern village of Khan al-Assal, the site of a previous alleged attack, and two other confidential sites. If one of those sites isn't the Ghouta region, the attack may as well have occurred on the other side of the world.

The United States and Russia -- major supporters of the Syrian opposition and the regime, respectively -- agree that chemical weapons attacks have occurred in Syria, though they disagree on whether the rebels or Assad are responsible for the attacks. U.S. intelligence officials have been perplexed by the Syrian regime's method of using chemical weapons, reporting that it has mixed tear gas, conventional weaponry, and chemical weapon payloads in a single warplane. President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that the Assad regime's use of such weapons would constitute a "red line." However, despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence community stated in June that the line had been crossed and the White House responded by announcing it would provide military support to the opposition, weapons still have not begun flowing to the rebels.

"As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won't do anything," an American intelligence official told Foreign Policy recently.

This new attack, however, could potentially be proof that the Assad regime is no longer willing to keep the death toll within that "certain level." The calls for an investigation are already growing: The Arab League secretary general called on the U.N. inspection team to "head immediately" to the site, while British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed "deep concern" over the reports and called on the government in Damascus to allow inspectors access to the area.

This is not the first time chemical weapons attacks have been reported in the neighborhoods east of downtown Damascus. In May, the French daily Le Monde published a dispatch from the suburb of Jobar -- one of the neighborhoods reportedly affected by the attack on Wednesday -- where its reporters claimed to have witnessed the repeated use of chemical weapons.

One of the doctors in Jobar, speaking to Le Monde, gave an account of the victims of chemical weapons attacks that matched many of the symptoms shown by the people in the videos coming out of Syria today.

"The people who arrive have trouble breathing," he said. "Their pupils are constricted. Some are vomiting. They've lost their hearing, they cannot speak, their respiratory muscles have been inert. If we don't give them immediate emergency treatment, death ensues."

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Al Jazeera: Give Us a Chance, America!

What does one Nashville soul food restaurateur think about Al Jazeera -- the Qatari-funded TV network, once vilified by George W. Bush as "hateful propaganda" - setting up shop in his hometown? Let's say he's skeptical, but open-minded:

"I don't know a lot about you," he told an Al Jazeera crew, who dropped by his restaurant to get his thoughts. "I'll know more when I see you on TV, and then I can have a better opinion once I get to see you."

Give them some credit for tackling the elephant in the studio head on. In the one-hour preview leading up to the official, much-anticipated launch of Al Jazeera America on Tuesday, the network was upfront about the possibility that the average viewer might find something about the network ... a little unfamiliar, perhaps?

One man, in one of many man-on-the-street interviews featured in the promo, said he'd "heard the name" Al Jazeera -- and knew that it had "something to do" with the Middle East. Another volunteered that it was "not in California," and "not in Texas" but rather somewhere far off and exotic: Iraq or Iran, maybe.

As the buildup to Tuesday's launch reached a fever pitch -- with everyone from the New York Times to Bloomberg to the Baltimore Sun weighing in on the new network -- almost all agreed that Al Jazeera faces at least one major potential stumbling block: Can it win over viewers who missed the network's moment of glory, during the 2011 Arab Spring, and mainly remember the days during the Iraq war when people like Donald Rumsfeld accused the broadcaster of promoting terrorism?

During the one-hour promo segment, AJAM appeared to strive mightily to convince viewers of its American street cred. The preview opened with praise from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain for its coverage, and proudly promoted the network's choice to open a bureau in Nashville (a decision some viewers found utterly perplexing today) in part, various network personalities said, because Nashville was representative of real, middle America.

In the people, Americans with southern accents and tattoos voiced their appreciation for a new choice in TV news. A man wearing a yarmulke didn't go quite so far -- but he did say the network was "entitled to set up a business." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

At the same time, Al Jazeera sought to assure viewers that it was perfectly natural to feeling uncertain about this new network with the funny name that has someone found its way into their homes.

"I think it's sometimes hard for people to believe in something and watch something that they don't know a lot about," Jonathan Martin, Al Jazeera's Nashville correspondent, told the camera reassuringly. The implicit message: You might come to like us, if you give us a chance.   

How was the network's coverage in the hours following its debut? The first hour of news featured a mix of generally very competent Egypt coverage -- including a good backgrounder on how the country came to be in the messy state it's in today -- alongside news about the Georgia school shooting and wildfires in Idaho. FP blogger Stephen Walt discussed the crisis in Egypt as one of the channel's first guests, drawing criticism from the Washington Free Beacon and other right-wing outlets critical of Walt's views on Israel.

Some have questioned whether Al Jazeera will struggle to find advertising, and for the brief period I watched yesterday, besides an ad for Gillette and two ads for Vonage, there were lots of spots for Proactiv and endless swimming pools -- standard daytime TV fare, but not exactly marquee names (to be fair, I wasn't watching during prime time).   

Did you catch any of Al Jazeera America's coverage yesterday? Leave any thoughts about what you saw in the comments. 

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