CAIRO — This morning, a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team woke up in the five-star Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Damascus. No more than a 15-minute drive away, in the capital’s eastern suburbs, there were rumblings that the worst chemical weapons attack in decades was underway.
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." But a preliminary examination of the footage by American intelligence officials and outside experts leads them to believe that chemical weapons were involved in the attack.
The opposition Local Coordination Committee 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.
The U.N. chemical weapons inspection team, however, may find itself unable to make the short drive to the Ghouta region to investigate the attack. Under the terms that the team negotiated with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, their movement is severely restricted: They are allowed to visit the northern village of Khan al-Assal, the site of a previous alleged attack, and two other confidential sites. If one of those sites isn’t the Ghouta region, the attack may as well have occurred on the other side of the world.
The United States and Russia — major supporters of the Syrian opposition and the regime, respectively — agree that chemical weapons attacks have occurred in Syria, though they disagree on whether the rebels or Assad are responsible for the attacks. U.S. intelligence officials have been perplexed by the Syrian regime’s method of using chemical weapons, reporting that it has mixed tear gas, conventional weaponry, and chemical weapon payloads in a single warplane. President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that the Assad regime’s use of such weapons would constitute a "red line." However, despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence community stated in June that the line had been crossed and the White House responded by announcing it would provide military support to the opposition, weapons still have not begun flowing to the rebels.
"As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything," an American intelligence official told Foreign Policy recently.
This new attack, however, could potentially be proof that the Assad regime is no longer willing to keep the death toll within that "certain level." The calls for an investigation are already growing: The Arab League secretary general called on the U.N. inspection team to "head immediately" to the site, while British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed "deep concern" over the reports and called on the government in Damascus to allow inspectors access to the area.
This is not the first time chemical weapons attacks have been reported in the neighborhoods east of downtown Damascus. In May, the French daily Le Monde published a dispatch from the suburb of Jobar — one of the neighborhoods reportedly affected by the attack on Wednesday — where its reporters claimed to have witnessed the repeated use of chemical weapons.
One of the doctors in Jobar, speaking to Le Monde, gave an account of the victims of chemical weapons attacks that matched many of the symptoms shown by the people in the videos coming out of Syria today.
"The people who arrive have trouble breathing," he said. "Their pupils are constricted. Some are vomiting. They’ve lost their hearing, they cannot speak, their respiratory muscles have been inert. If we don’t give them immediate emergency treatment, death ensues."
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.| The Cable |