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Looking for Evidence After Allegations of Chemical Weapon Attacks in Syria

March 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Syria, sketchy reports of two deadly chemical weapon attacks were blamed on rebels by the state media, but those claims seem to be highly suspect. Jeffrey Brown gets analysis from Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation and David Ignatius, a foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post.
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JEFFREY BROWN:  We continue our focus on the Middle East with a deeper look at the question of chemical weapons and their possible use in Syria. 

I’m joined by Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation, and David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post. 

David, I want to start with you.  And tell us what is known and not known about the possible use.  What do we know about these incidents? 

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post:  Yesterday, the Free Syrian Army, the rebel military group, began telling U.S. officials that they had reports of victims of two attacks in Syria, one location in the north near Aleppo, another location in Damascus. 

And they began counting the numbers coming into hospitals for treatment.  In the north, the numbers were larger.  They talked about 54 in the initial report, 14 of them dead on arrival, a smaller number in Damascus.  They have added more details today.  I talked to the Free Syrian Army officials I’m in contact with. 

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, senior U.S. official, has said publicly that he believes there is a high probability that there were chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, as claimed by the rebels, and we now have President Obama saying he is studying the information.  It’s not clear how those studies will be done since the sites are remote. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, that’s your question.  How do we monitor these things?  We have heard different things now, the Israelis saying one thing, the — Ambassador Ford, U.S. Ambassador Ford today was saying there’s no evidence so far.  So, how does one monitor it? 

LEONARD SPECTOR, Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation :  Well, first, I think you want to observe the victims, see what they have experienced.  There are still some that are alive and were brought to the hospital with wounds. 

So you will have a chance to interview them if the hospitals are within a location where the Free Syrian Army can get to them, which it sounds like they are.  And of course I imagine there are agents of friendly countries in the area who might have the opportunity to do those interviews. 

A lot would also depend on the kind of weapon that might have used to deliver the chemicals.  If it was a Scud missile, that sort of signals it’s going to be the Syrian government.  If it’s something like an artillery shell, it could be ambiguous.  And, of course, the Syrian government has called for an investigation with a neutral international group.  So, that suggests that they are at least claiming nothing has happened that they’re responsible for. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  And when we say chemical weapons, is there a range of — what are we talking about?  Is there a range of things that are more or less dangerous that would fall in that category? 

LEONARD SPECTOR:  Well, the nerve gas is sarin and V.X., which we know they have sarin — we think they may have V.X., which is a more persistent nerve agent — are quite deadly. 

But if you have got a very small dose, as may have happened, you would have some very nasty symptoms, but you might survive, and this may be what we’re observing.  If it’s mustard, it’s blisters.  I don’t think any of the photographs we saw showed that.  And most of the individuals that we saw were on some kind of respirator, suggesting if something of this occurred, it may have been sarin. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  So the president said the investigation is going on to see if they can confirm this.  He talked again about it being — the use of chemical weapons being a game changer, talked about that red line.  What is going on behind the scenes in terms of preparations if it in fact turns out to have been chemical weapons? 

DAVID IGNATIUS:  The obvious answer is that we don’t know, that the preparations are and have been secret. 

I should just note, on the question of fact, my sources in the Free Syrian Army say they believe the attack in the Damascus area was sarin and that they’re less sure about the other.  And I have heard from U.S. government sources that they think it’s possible that the casualties in these attacks might have been much greater if the weapons had performed as they were supposed to have. 

There’s a problem, always, in dispersing chemical weapon agents.  It’s not so easy to disseminate them.  So, it’s thought that the casualty total might have been much larger.  On your question of what the U.S. is going to do about it, obviously, the question for the president is what do you do when the red line that you have drawn is crossed, if you get the evidence to confirm that? 

We have been making military preparations to go in and, with U.S. allies, secure the chemical weapons stocks that are in Syria to the extent that that’s possible, but that’s a big military operation.  I would think the other thing that the U.S. is doing, probably right now, is talking to Russia, which has also said use of chemical weapons in Syria — Syria is an ally of Russia — is unacceptable. 

So, I would think that’s the first stop, is talk to the Russians. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  And this, we have talked about on this program before.  Just remind us.  How large is this stockpile?  How difficult would it be to go in and secure it? 

LEONARD SPECTOR:  Well, it’s vast, because it was intended for military use against foreign troops.  So, typically that’s, you know, hundreds, maybe thousands of tons of chemical agent dispersed at a number of sites, and these sites are still under Syrian government control. 

So it’s not as if we could arrive on the scene and they would say, yes, you may take these over and protect the sites.  They may fight to hold on to them.  So the options for us are not so immediately obvious.  One thing that will certainly happen is that if this was a chemical weapon attack, we will be going out to get as much evidence as we possibly can to make a convincing international case that time for action has come and to convince the Russians and others. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  What about this question, the charge by the Syrian government that it was in fact the rebels?  Is anybody taking that seriously? 

DAVID IGNATIUS:  I haven’t heard anybody take it seriously.  It’s a somewhat implausible charge. 

There’s no evidence that the rebels have obtained access to chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria.  I think what this will do is push the debate about what the next step for the U.S. in Syria is to a different level. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Which had already been ramping up in some ways. 

DAVID IGNATIUS:  That had been happening anyway. 

President Obama has been deeply wary of making a military commitment in Syria, but I think the pressure, for example, for some kind of safe haven in the north, in the areas that have been liberated by the Syrian rebels, with some kind of protection against air attack, I think there will be a growing push in that direction, already is in the administration. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  You’re agreeing with that? 

LEONARD SPECTOR:  I would think so. 

Also, I think so we are going to have to try to provide some assistance for the victims. 

DAVID IGNATIUS:  Yes. 

LEONARD SPECTOR:  So, that will certainly be another part of the operation if, indeed, this was a chemical weapon attack. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  How does one do that?  How does…

LEONARD SPECTOR:  Well, I think you probably want to get them out of the country to hospitals where they can be treated more effectively, where there are no sort of limitations on access to medical assistance and so forth. 

And, unfortunately, there is some experience in dealing with victims of these attacks because of the Iran-Iraq War.  So I would imagine the place would be probably Jordan, possibly Lebanon. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Leonard Spector and David Ignatius, we will keep watching.  Thanks very much. 

LEONARD SPECTOR:  Thank you.