The Worst Chemical Weapon Attack In Decades?

by Chas Danner

Syrian rebel groups claim that hundreds have been killed in what may have been a chemical weapon attack by Assad on the suburbs east of Damascus. The attack may be the beginning of a larger offensive by regime forces. David Kenner gives his summary:

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.”

The opposition Local Coordination Committee, however, 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.

One report even says the death total could be over 1,300. Chemical weapon expert Ralph Trapp compares this attack to previous ones:

It is possible a gas was involved, but the images I’ve seen were not clear enough to see other symptoms beyond difficulty in breathing and suffocation. It certainly looks like some sort of poisoning. … [But] this is one of the first videos I’ve seen from Syria where the numbers start to make sense. If you have a gas attack you would expect large numbers of people, children and adults, to be affected, particularly if it’s in a built up area.

Jean Pascal Zanders’ analysis:

I am not sure whether the claims of nerve agent use accompanying the footage and images are correct. The people are not convulsing (except for one man shaking his legs while shouting out, but the remainder of his body does not suffer from involuntary contractions) and I have not seen anybody applying nerve agent antidotes. Nor do medical staff and other people appear to suffer from secondary exposure while carrying or treating victims.

It is clear that something terrible has happened. The scenes could not have been stage managed.

Jeffrey Goldberg weighs in:

Two questions are raised by reports of this attack. The first, of course, is whether or not it happened the way Syrian rebels said it happened. That is why immediately dispatching the UN team, already in-country, to the affected areas is so vital. If this process worked the way it should, they would be there already. If the Syrian regime denies the UN inspectors permission to visit these areas, well, that is kind of an answer in itself.

The second question is, why would the Assad regime launch its biggest chemical attack on rebels and civilians precisely at the moment when a UN inspection team was parked in Damascus? The answer to that question is easy: Because Assad believes that no one – not the UN, not President Obama, not other Western powers, not the Arab League – will do a damn thing to stop him.

There is a good chance he is correct.

Guardian live-blog here. A Reddit page is collecting information and videos here.