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Will Latest Attack Confirm Chemical Weapon Use by Syrian Regime?

August 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Will investigators find sufficient evidence of chemical weapon use by the Syrian government in this latest alleged attack on civilians? What will inspectors face on the ground? Ray Suarez asks Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the possible chemical attack, I’m joined by Jeffrey White, a former senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Jeffrey White, the images are terrible. What does this tell you about the state of the civil war in Syria?

JEFFREY WHITE, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, unbelievably, it continues to escalate, right?

And it looks like the regime conducted this operation using a fairly significant amount of chemical weapon. And it demonstrates once again that the regime will go as far as it needs to, to win this war.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the significance of the location, so close to Damascus?

JEFFREY WHITE: These were areas, east Guta and western Guta in the Damascus suburbs, that the rebels have held and controlled for a long time.

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The regime has been conducting a series of extended offensives to get the rebels out of these areas, unsuccessfully. It’s also been losing troops, personnel, tanks, and so on in these offenses. So it looks to me like the regime is trying to make a decisive action here and force the rebels out.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Smithson, several European foreign ministers today said they’re going to wait until there’s verification of what they saw in that video. The Turkish foreign minister spokesman said he saw all he needed to see, this was clearly a chemical attack.

When video like this arrives of uncertain provenance, you don’t know who shot it, you don’t know who the people are in the video, how do you determine whether it’s the real thing?

AMY SMITHSON, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies: Well, the last incident that the world saw where there were chemical casualties on this scale was Halabja, which was Saddam Hussein’s attack in 1988 against a small town, Kurdish village.

There weren’t cell phones around then to record all these types of images. The only pictures I have ever seen of that are still photographs. And I have heard of no reports anywhere else in the world of an incident of this magnitude.

So all signs are pointing toward Damascus and this is something that happened within the last 24 hours.

RAY SUAREZ: But when a government has policy decisions may hinge on the verifiability, the authenticity of these images, how do you satisfy yourself that you know what you’re seeing, where it happened, how many casualties there are?

AMY SMITHSON: Well, I think the casualty toll will become clearer with the passage of time. These people were taken to several different hospitals and even makeshift facilities.

And it’s really impossible to know from just video images what specific chemical was involved. These symptoms that you’re seeing, the twitching, the pinpoint pupils, sometimes convulsing, are consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals, not necessarily just sarin or V.X., the classic warfare agents.

And the inspectors that are there have sampling equipment and will be able to determine that if they’re let out of the hotel.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that’s a good point.

The inspection regime often involves negotiations before the team arrives about what they’re going to be able to see, where they’re going to be able to go. When an incident happens once they’re already on the ground, can you renegotiate the terms when they’re in-country?

JEFFREY WHITE: You can try.

The Syrian government certainly has demonstrated over the past several years that in any negotiations over any access like this, it’s a very difficult partner in those negotiations. It tries to circumscribe as much as possible the activity of any human team operating inside Syria.

It puts conditions on what they can do. It rejects proposals that they make to take out — take inspection-type actions when it feels like it doesn’t want that to happen. So there’s no guarantee that the U.N. inspectors will be able to see anything outside of their hotel room.

The regime clearly has a significant interest in denying access to this area. If they do, it will be a sign that they are, in fact, guilty of this particular action.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Smithson, is Syria a signatory of any treaties that limit the production and use of chemical weapons?

MY SMITHSON: Syria is not a member of the chemical weapons convention, which does just that. But 188 other nations are.

And this is the treaty that outlaws the use not just of sarin and V.X., but of any toxic chemical for military purposes. And I agree with Mr. White that it looks like a concentrated predawn attack. This is something that a commander who is knowledgeable in ideal conditions for having a gas hang in the same area.

If you did this in the middle of the day, the wind is likely to blow it away. In these predawn hours, it’s cool, the winds are very low and the gas will just stay where it’s fired.

RAY SUAREZ: So it sounds like you have no doubt that it’s a fairly small number of players in Syria who would even be able to carry out an attack like this?

AMY SMITHSON: The scale of this attack is very different from previous incidents, which the casualty tolls were rather small and maybe one device was used to deliver it.

This is coordinated in the predawn hours in a quantity of material that’s probably inconsistent with anything other than somebody who’s been making this stuff and has a delivery capability that can put that much on the target in that short period of time.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Syria is not a signatory, but the world is full of them, including some of the most able nations on the planet. Are they on the hook for some kind of response if a non-signatory violates the terms of that treaty?

JEFFREY WHITE: I think they’re on the hook in terms of the morality of the situation and the — and the circumstances of what’s going on there.

I don’t know if they’re required to do anything by any of the — any of the protocols or whatever they have signed. But certainly there’s a moral obligation to take action here. This is a horrific act, probably by the Syrian government.

So there’s going to be pressure to take action, not just to punish for what happened here, but to prevent any further action along these lines.


JEFFREY WHITE: The chemical weapons convention requires every state that signs it to agree to provide assistance in the event that any other member is threatened with or understood goes an attack.

Now, Syria’s not a member, but we are talking about basic human decency here, which is one of the reasons why I have encouraged countries to provide defensive equipment not just to the Syrian rebels, but to the Syrian civilians.


RAY SUAREZ: It’s pretty hard to defend against this kind of thing, isn’t it?

AMY SMITHSON: Well, a gas mask will go a long way to help.

And it’s not ideal. Ideally, you would be able to provide them with a defensive garb that covers you all over. But prior to the 1991 war, Israel equipped its entire civilian population with gas masks. And what you could see in these films was that the Syrian civilians were trying to decontaminate the victims, to wash their skin, which would help reduce the possible effects there.

So gas masks and some serious coaching about how to decontaminate and decontaminate fast will reduce the amount of casualties. It won’t eliminate it.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Smithson, Jeffrey White, thank you both.


AMY SMITHSON: Thank you.