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.
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
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
"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."