Syrian activists claim Assad unleashed chemical attack, killed thousands

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 9:33 p.m.

Syrian government forces unleashed artillery attacks and air raids in eastern Damascus on Wednesday in a campaign that followed unverified reports of mass deaths in a chemical weapons attack.

Those allegations of gassing civilians — opposition activists claim that 1,100 to more than 1,600 people are dead — dwarfed all previous such accounts in the civil war.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 647 Syrians were killed, and it attributed nearly 590 of those deaths to chemical weapons. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, considered the most authoritative group tracking casualties in the conflict, estimated at least 136 dead from an air assault but didn't address whether chemical weapons were involved.

The offensive appeared designed to wipe out recent rebel gains outside the capital, but it was overshadowed by fresh claims from rebel activists that the forces of President Bashar Assad deployed chemical weapons even as international inspectors arrived in his country.

Few reliable details filtered out of the country — more than two years into a civil war — to confirm or rebut reports of a chemical attack. Information about any munitions and whether they included nerve or chemical agents couldn't be confirmed without independent observers in the area.

Instead, scores of amateur videos posted online showed dozens — women, children and men — either dead or in deep respiratory distress and medical crews frantically trying to treat them.

What was clear was that the regime had mounted a major attack on a series of restive, pro-rebel neighborhoods on the eastern outskirts of the capital.

The claims of a widespread chemical weapons attack on a dense urban area happened as United Nations inspectors arrived to investigate previous allegations that the regime had used banned chemical weapons earlier this year.

Syrian state media denied that chemical weapons had been used.

The U.N. Security Council met in closed session to talk about allegations of the world's largest chemical weapons attack since the 1980s.

Even without confirmation, the reports of chemical weapons use put the U.S. government in an increasingly awkward position over what role it ultimately will play in a seemingly intractable civil war in a volatile region.

A finding that Assad's military was gassing civilians would be the clearest example yet of a breach of the “red line” that President Obama had warned the Syrian leader not to cross. And it might crank up pressure for more direct military aid to the rebels.

Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the scale of the alleged attack far eclipsed a previous U.S. assessment. Washington earlier had concluded that the regime had conducted only small-scale attacks at different sites, with a total of about 150 victims.

“This would seem to be a major event,” Thielmann said, “but it's difficult to sort out what allegations are credible and reliable.”

The latest charges imply that the Syrian government deployed banned weapons at the same time that international observers arrived to investigate earlier rebel claims of their use, and longtime observers found the timing nonsensical.

Still, rebel leaders and opponents of the Assad regime insisted it was newly guilty of war crimes.

“The chemical weapons massacre had more than 1,500 martyrs and 5,000 wounded, most of them women and children,” said Abu Mansour, an activist based in the area of Reef Damascus.

He claimed that chemical munitions were dropped on the suburbs of Ein Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar.

“There seem to be increasing amounts of footage of very realistic-appearing injuries commensurate with a chemical attack, but (that is) still leaving lots of questions,” said Stephen Johnson, a visiting fellow at Cranfield University's Forensics Institute in Great Britain. “It would appear that patients have been injured by what might be a rapid attempt to inject atropine,” a potentially poisonous compound that's sometimes used as an antidote to sarin exposure.

At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the president condemned any use of chemical weapons in Syria. Earnest said America had no independent evidence of the use of chemical weapons but that it urged Syria to allow the United Nations investigative team to gather evidence.

Earnest said Obama and his aides were reviewing the situation and that he had no policy changes to announce. He said the president “wouldn't rule out additional assistance.”

Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, a member of the National Security Working Group and co-chair of the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism Caucus, said: “I was disturbed to hear the reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. The U.N. inspection team on the ground should look into these new claims and determine if the regime has once again employed the use of these terrible weapons. This should also serve to refocus the attention of the U.S. and international community.”

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