Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review: Chemical Attacks in Syria?

From our 23 August LDESP Middle East News Update.


In late August, gruesome images and videos continued to emerge from the Syrian conflict, now well into its second year. However, as news followed of possibly the largest chemical attacks in decades, it became clear that the recent events represented a tipping point.

“With U.N. chemical weapons inspectors trapped just kilometers away from the site of what could be one of the worst gas attacks in decades, [Syrian] doctors frantically collected samples on 22 August that they hoped could prove an alleged massacre in the outskirts of Damascus,” the Daily Star reported a couple days after the attack. Shortly thereafter, the BBC assembled an excellent overview of the chemical attacks that includes pictures, a succint Q&A, and the latest in news regarding the story: Syria “Chemical Attack”: Distressing Footage under Analysis

“The United States says it is reserving judgement on whether chemical weapons were used in the attack on a suburb of Damascus on 21 August, which led to widespread casualties.

But as a clearer picture begins to emerge of the alleged attack and its consequences, some experts say they are becoming more convinced that a nerve agent may have been used.

Dozens of amateur video reports are now available online about the alleged chemical attack. Although the material is unverified, it helps provide a fuller picture of what may have happened on the outskirts of Damascus in the small hours of the morning of 21 August.

In the first place the timing of the attack is becoming clearer: it was in the dead of night.

Some of those who did not survive can be seen laid out in their nightclothes in the basement shelters where they were taken. Some survivors describe being woken up by the blasts in the middle of the night while they were in bed.

(…) One video report shows the headlights in the pitch dark of what appear to be ambulances with sirens screeching, apparently rushing from areas that had been under attack.

Another report shows victims being laid out on a pavement to be methodically washed down in an apparent attempt to decontaminate them. A low light, as though from car headlights, shakily illuminates the night time scene.

(…) And from the overwhelming and distressing litany of footage of victims an overview of the symptoms can be gleaned.

Most of those being treated are men of all ages and very small children.

(…) Few women have been filmed, perhaps out of respect for their privacy, possibly because they were less likely to have been sleeping on the roof in the open air, and therefore less likely to be exposed to toxic fumes.

Among those laid out on floors, or being given assistance on makeshift beds and stretchers, there are none who show any outward sign of blood or lacerations. But there are many who have extreme difficulty breathing and are being helped with oxygen masks.

(…) Even though the US government says it is still not able to say conclusively that chemical weapons were used, Stephen Johnson, a former British Army Chemical weapons expert now attached to Cranfield University’s forensics department, said the mounting visual evidence seemed to point to the use of chemical weapons. (BBC)

President Obama has maintained that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would serve as a red line that might trigger increased U.S. involvement. Christi Parsons and Patrick J. McDonnell as The Los Angeles Times provide a useful analysis on the U.S.’s options and likely path moving forward, Obama Treads Lightly Amid Chemical Attack Allegations in Syria:

Facing mounting pressure to respond to new reports of brutality by the Syrian government, President Obama on 23 August downplayed the likelihood of a U.S. military intervention and dismissed as overstated the notion that the United States alone could end Syria’s raging civil war.

European leaders condemned the alleged poison gas attack that apparently killed more than 100 people near Damascus in late August. Even Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, joined those calling on his government to allow United Nations inspectors already in Syria to try to determine what happened on 21 August.

In his first comments about the attack, which produced more disturbing images of Syrian children wrapped in white burial shrouds, Obama carefully avoided saying Assad had crossed the “red line” that the president set last summer as a trigger for possible U.S. intercession. Use of chemical weapons, he said at the time, would “change my calculus.”

Source: AFP

Source: AFP

Appearing on CNN, Obama called reports of a chemical assault “troublesome” and “a big event of grave concern” that has hastened his time frame for a possible response. “This is something that is going to require America’s attention,” he said.

Obama, who entered the White House vowing to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, warned of getting “drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”

“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it,” Obama said. “Do we have the coalition to make it work? Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

Obama’s reluctance to intervene got a tacit vote of approval when he appeared at a town hall meeting at Binghamton University in upstate New York. In an hourlong, free-ranging question-and-answer period, not one person asked about his plans for Syria or expressed concern about events there.

For much of the summer, the more than two-year-long civil war in Syria has been overshadowed in Washington by the crisis in Egypt, where the military ousted a freely elected leader and shot and killed hundreds of Islamist protesters who had rallied in his support.

The gruesome images from Syria in late August put the calamity there back in the forefront. It also has exposed a clear division in the White House about any possible response.

(…) Some of Obama’s top aides are counseling caution, warning that Syria’s treacherous political landscape could ensnare U.S. forces, just as Iraq did. But other senior aides have pressed the president to consider more forceful action, arguing that America must respond to the use of chemical weapons, which are barred by international treaty, if proof is obtained that Assad’s forces launched such an attack.

Top national security advisors at the White House confirmed they were updating a possible target list for airstrikes if Obama decides to order a military response. Officials said they are not considering sending U.S. troops to Syria, or creating a “no fly zone” by sending U.S. warplanes to eliminate Syrian air defenses and aircraft to protect civilians, as was done in Libya in 2011.

Other possible options include cruise missile strikes or a more sustained air assault. Missiles could be launched from warships in the Mediterranean, and bombers and other aircraft deployed in the Middle East could be redirected to Syria.

After months of delays, a 20-member U.N. team arrived in Damascus on 18 August with a limited mandate to investigate allegations of three chemical attacks that occurred months ago. There was no word on 23 August whether the Syrian government would allow the team to collect evidence from the latest incident.

(…) News agencies reported on 23 August that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would “constitute a crime against humanity.” There was “no time to lose” in getting to the bottom of the matter, he said during a visit to Seoul.

Although Russia called for further investigation, authorities in Moscow suggested it was Syrian rebels, not Assad’s military, who carried out the attack in a bid to discredit the government and spur international intervention.

“We are dealing with a preplanned provocation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in Moscow.

But Britain, a major supporter of the Syrian opposition, said Assad’s government probably was the culprit.” (Los Angeles Times)

Though the longevity and escalation of the conflict in Syria have caused worldwide condemnation, the persistence of the conflict has caused it to be repeatedly overshadowed by other regional turmoil. In an informative piece, Janet Davison of Canada’s CBC, keeps reporting timely with “The 5 New Issues in the Conflict,” (two of which have already been discussed): the opposition is fractured; the role of Russia; the role of Iran; chemical weapons; the U.S. position. An explanation of the first three is excerpted below.

The opposition is fractured

From the outside, it might be easy to consider the Syrian conflict a story of emboldened Sunni rebels coming from a common position to take on and thrust off a repressive Shia-backed regime, but it’s not that simple.Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 12.00.19 PM

“One of the key things is the fracturing nature of the opposition,” says Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm.

That fracturing has been around since the beginning of the conflict. “But we’re seeing increasing cases of infighting,” Lamrani said in an interview from Tanjir.

Such infighting “really damages the goal of toppling the Assad regime, and actually is another major reason he and his regime have made sort of a comeback in recent times.”

Lamrani notes that there is a “pretty divided landscape” when it comes to ethnic diversity and demographics in the country.

“A lot of the minorities within Syria, not necessarily just because they like the government, but because they fear the opposition, have gradually sided more and more with the regime. So we have a lot of the Christian groups, a lot of the Jewish groups, and the Alawites themselves … those are siding with the government.”

The opposition is primarily Sunni, the majority Muslim group in Syria, but even that is a generalization that could fall short of reality.

“You do have small, small groups of Christians, Jews and even in amongst the Free Syrian Army a few Alawites,” says Lamrani.

On the other end of the opposition spectrum are more extreme jihadist groups, some linked to al-Qaeda.

Much of the opposition fracturing is a result of differing ideologies, Lamrani suggests.


Image source: Al-Monitor, Russian President, Saudi Spy Chief Discussed Syria, Egypt

Image source: Al-Monitor, Russian President, Saudi Spy Chief Discussed Syria, Egypt

The role of Russia

The violence and confrontation may be unfolding within the geographic borders of Syria, but it really isn’t just a local conflict.

“It has ramifications on the regional level,” says Lamrani. “It has ramificiations on the global level.”

And one of the biggest external players is Russia.

“So many UN Security Council resolutions have been voted down because of Russia, because of Russian diplomatic backing for the regime, and that is unlikely to stop any time soon,” says Lamrani.

For Russia, there is a lot at stake, suggests Hassan-Yari. “Syria is, in my view, the only place where the Russians can hope to have a presence in the region,” he says.

Russia is looking for international respect and a stronger role in international relations, not unlike that afforded the former Soviet Union, suggests Hassan-Yari.

At the same time, Russia is also hosting the Olympics in February and has come under enormous pressure from the West to try to do something to help stop the fighting.

The role of Iran

The complex nature of Middle East relations also plays into the conflict, particularly the role that Shia Iran, one of Assad’s longtime backers, has taken on. That would include Iran’s admission last fall that it has had troops in Syria to provide what it calls non-military assistance. It is also widely believed to have supplied weapons to the Assad regime.

Iran has just had elections and its new president seems to want to re-open a dialogue with the West, particularly about the economic sanctions imposed over its nuclear ambitions.

Still, Lamrani says, “there are many reasons why Iran would want the [Syrian] regime to stay in power.” He points to recent history, particularly the Iraq war, the collapse of the Sunni regime in Baghdad and the rise of the Shias in Iraq.

That, Lamrani suggests, “has extended Iran’s influence through Iraq into Syria, a traditional ally, and to the Lebanese coast, so they have a crescent, or what many analysts call the Shiite crescent of influence, extending all the way to the Mediterranean.”

If the Syrian regime collapses, that influence, which includes leverage against Israel, would be broken.

“There’s also the key factor that Syria acts as a major logistical hub for access to the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon,” says Lamrani.

“Without Syria, Iran’s going to have major difficulties supplying Hezbollah with weaponry and supplies.” (CBC)

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 12.04.36 PM

Source: Thompson Reuters Foundation, “How is Syria’s Civil War Impacting the Region?

Continuing to look at the impact of the Syrian conflict beyond its borders, after two years of exponentially increasing numbers of refugees, we are starting to see the different variations of how these refugee groups are living in their new countries. The BBC reports on the “Contrasting Fates of Syria’s Refugees”:

“As UN agencies say that the number of Syrian children forced from the country has passed one million, the BBC’s Jim Muir compares how refugees are faring in two of Syria’s neighbours – Iraq and Lebanon.

“It’s hard, but we have to endure,” says Roken Muttahed, one of the Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kawargosk camp, looking down at her two-month-old baby daughter, the youngest of her four children.

“God be praised that we’re still alive, and we’ve been able to save the children from death,” she says.

Roken and her family were among the first to cross the swaying pontoon bridge at Pish Khabour when the sudden exodus of refugees from north-east Syria got under way on on 22 August.

They came from the town of Malkieh in northern Syria, which has recently been hit by shelling as the conflict intensifies in many parts of the country.

Now, having arrived on day one, they are veterans of the new emergency camp that has suddenly mushroomed at Kawargosk on a previously deserted patch of open plain to the west of Erbil, the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

In just one week, a tented township housing 15,000 refugees has sprung up, expanding daily with more people arriving constantly after a long journey across the border through scorching summer heat.

Big tents, mainly provided by UNHCR, have been set up in serried rows, with water tanks and toilets. The site was prepared by the Kurdistan government, which even managed to put in an electricity network.

“They have given us everything we need – food, water, shelter – and we’re very grateful,” said Roken Mottahed. “Maybe now my husband can find work as well – he’s a driver and porter.”

Harrowing journeys

Around half of the refugees at Kawargosk – and of the 42,000 who have flooded into Iraqi Kurdistan in the past week – are children.

“It’s a massive upheaval for them,” said Jaya Murthi, spokesman for Unicef, as he surveyed the mushrooming camp.

“Many of these children have seen horrific things. They’ve seen bombings, they’ve seen friends and family members killed, schools destroyed. They’ve walked for hours on end, displaced, really harrowing journeys.

“Those events have really scarred them, and will scar them for a long time. So it’s really important that we find safe spaces for them to play in, and be children again, so we can help them overcome the trauma and stress they’ve been through,” Mr Murthi says.” (BBC)

Finally, while there has been much discussion of the foreign fighters between Europe and Syria (see our recent LDESP News Udate from Europe), in late August, this concern was brought within the parameters of U.S. national security. Reuters reports “FBI Director Worried Americans Fighting in Syria Could Bring Tactics Home”:

“The FBI is concerned that Americans may be fighting in Syria and could bring terrorist tactics back to the United States, but U.S. officials say there is a small number of U.S. citizens fighting with Syrian rebels.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told ABC News in an interview aired on 23 August that the terrorism threat that began in Afghanistan and Pakistan has now “migrated” to places including Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen.

“You have individuals traveling to those venues, you are concerned about the associations they will make, and secondly about the expertise they will develop and whether or not they will utilize those associations, utilize that expertise, to undertake an attack upon the homeland,” Mueller said in the interview.

“So, yes, we are concerned about that, and, yes, we are monitoring it,” he said.

Places like Syria may end up harboring “radical extremists who want to do harm” to the United States, according to Mueller, who will leave his FBI post next month after 12 years.

U.S. government officials and private experts monitoring the 2-1/2-year-old civil war in Syria have said Americans and other foreigners were taking part in the fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Some experts said it had become a pilgrimage destination for Sunni Muslim militants.

Nicole Mansfield, the American woman killed in Syria whilst allegedly fighting with the rebels. Image source: Al-Arabiya

Nicole Mansfield, the American woman killed in Syria whilst allegedly fighting with the rebels.
Image source: Al-Arabiya

One U.S. national security official estimated on 23 August that only a handful of Americans are currently fighting in Syria, although other officials have said several dozen U.S. citizens have cycled through the country since fighting began.

An American woman was killed this year in the company of Syrian rebels in Idlib province.

A former U.S. soldier was arrested on his return to the United States in March and charged with conspiring to use a rocket-propelled grenade in Syria. Investigators said he acknowledged fighting with Syrian rebels, including the Nusra Front, which Washington says is a branch of al Qaeda.

U.S. and European security officials have said they are more concerned about the traffic in and out of Syria of would-be fighters from European countries, including Britain, France and Germany. European nationals often can easily enter the United States without obtaining an advance visa.” (Reuters)


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