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U.S. investigating two possible chemical weapons attacks in Syria

The U.S. government is scrambling to collect information on not one but two deadly events in Syria that opposition forces claim were chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their advocates in Washington claim to have identified the chemical agent used ...

The U.S. government is scrambling to collect information on not one but two deadly events in Syria that opposition forces claim were chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their advocates in Washington claim to have identified the chemical agent used in what they say were two Scud-like missile attacks launched by the Syrian regime against civilians on March 19. The Syrian Support Group (SSG), the only American organization licensed by the U.S. government to send money directly to the FSA, issued a press release Wednesday claiming the gas that killed civilians in separate events near Damascus and Aleppo was Echothiophate, a chemical agent simulant found in insecticides.

The U.S. government is scrambling to collect information on not one but two deadly events in Syria that opposition forces claim were chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their advocates in Washington claim to have identified the chemical agent used in what they say were two Scud-like missile attacks launched by the Syrian regime against civilians on March 19. The Syrian Support Group (SSG), the only American organization licensed by the U.S. government to send money directly to the FSA, issued a press release Wednesday claiming the gas that killed civilians in separate events near Damascus and Aleppo was Echothiophate, a chemical agent simulant found in insecticides.

Echothiophate is not technically a chemical weapon but causes similar effects in victims, including muscle, nerve, and respiratory damage resulting in death if not treated quickly.

Several administration officials told The Cable that the U.S government does not yet know what caused the deaths in Damascus and Aleppo, but administrations officials did confirm that the two incidents seem to be related and are both part of an ongoing inquiry. The Cable is not able to independently confirm the FSA and SSG claims.

"Because we cannot yet state with certainty that chemical weapons have been used in the last days, I cannot tell you what happened," Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said Wednesday. "I can tell you that we have a large team of people working on it right now."

The SSG said that doctors who treated the initials victims from a Scud-like missile attack in the al-Oteiba neighborhood near the Damascus International Airport confirmed the chemical was Echothiophate and that the doctors had treated the victims with Atropine and other drugs. The FSA claims that there were 60-70 victims of this particular attack.

The second apparent Scud attack was launched from Damascus toward Aleppo, but due to what was assumed to be mechanical problems, the missile fell short of its target and landed one kilometer from the Infantry Training Academy in Khan Asal in the western Aleppo suburbs, in an area occupied by regime forces and civilian regime supporters, FSA leaders told the SSG. Sixteen people were killed immediately, and an unknown number of poisoned people were taken to the Aleppo University Hospital, which is in the hands of the regime, according to FSA reports.

"FSA forces are not in possession of delivery systems capable of carrying chemical warheads," the SSG said in its press release.

In his speech before a crowd of Israeli university students in Jerusalem Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama again stated that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would have dire consequences, but declined to specify what any of those consequences might be.

"I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists," Obama said. "The world is watching. We will hold you accountable."

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice welcomed Thursday U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s announcement that the U.N. would conduct its own inquiry into the incidents.

"The United States supports an investigation that pursues any and all credible allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, and underscores the importance of launching this investigation as swiftly as possible," she said. 

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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