A day after Syria’s government accused rebels of firing a missile that released thick chemical smoke, the truth about what happened is clouded by a chorus of conflicting claims.
The Syrian government today asked United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for a “specialized impartial, independent mission” to investigate. The opposition, charging that the regime used a chemical weapon, also seeks an inquiry.
Russia, Syria’s primary arms supplier, backed the government’s allegations and condemned opposition fighters. The U.S. says there’s no evidence rebels possess chemical weapons or that either side has used them.
Ban has said chemical weapons use by anybody under any circumstances would constitute an “outrageous crime.” U.S. President Barack Obama has said that the Syrian regime would cross a “red line” if it used its chemical weapons stockpile — the region’s largest.
“I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons,” Obama said today in Israel. “I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”
Behind the war of words lies a debate among Western powers on whether and how to weigh in more forcefully to bring to an end a crisis that has killed more than 70,000 people, spurred a refugee exodus that threatens to destabilize neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, and where a chemical arsenal could fall into the wrong hands as chaos spreads.
Britain has said it will supply armored vehicles and body armor for the opposition. France said it may act alone to arm the rebels.
Details about the attack are hard to confirm in a country where outside verification is virtually impossible. A UN team of monitors departed Syria last year, unable to leave their hotels or keep track of the abuses committed on the ground.
Syrian authorities allege that 25 people were killed and 110 injured by a rocket laden with chemicals in the Khan al- Assal area in Aleppo province. The attack at 7:30 a.m. local time fell 300 meters away from where its troops were stationed, according to a letter to Ban yesterday from Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari.
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told a House of Representatives committee hearing today that the Obama administration hasn’t seen any evidence that nerve agents have been used in the two-year conflict.
“So far we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used yesterday, but I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports,” Ford told the foreign affairs committee.
While Syria’s government has produced, stored, and weaponized chemical arms, “little is known from open sources” about the size and condition of the stockpile, the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service said in a report in December.
The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been reported to have stocks of nerve and blister agents such as sarin, VX, and mustard gas.
The Syrian opposition — which just elected a new interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto — has accused Assad’s forces of using chemical agents before, most recently on Dec. 23. There have been no confirmed cases, and it wasn’t determined whether such allegations referred to deadly nerve agents such as sarin gas or nonlethal crowd-control irritants such as tear gas.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said yesterday in a statement that it was concerned “that weapons of mass destruction have fallen into the hands of fighters.” Russia has protected Assad by blocking three resolutions at the Security Council seeking to penalize his government with sanctions.
Israeli officials have said chemical weapons have already been used in Syria. In an interview with CNN, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said “it is clear for us here in Israel” that chemical weapons have been deployed in the Syrian conflict and that an international response should be on the table. She declined to say whether there is evidence the regime has directed the use of chemical weapons.
Britain’s Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said in an interview yesterday in New York that U.K. officials “have not ruled out further changes” to its approach on Syria.
“There is a clear message there: the regime is responsible for the cycle of violence,” Burt said.
In the U.S., Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin yesterday voiced his support for a Libya-style no-fly zone to deprive Syrian forces of their air power. Before becoming Secretary of State, John Kerry had urged the establishment of a humanitarian corridor, a move that would need to be enforced militarily.
As the top U.S. diplomat, Kerry has stuck to the Obama administration’s cautious approach toward more active involvement in Syria.
“President Obama has made it clear that the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that have made a decision to provide arms, whether it’s France or Britain or others,” Kerry told reporters March 18.
Kerry said Assad is receiving help from Iran, “elements” related to al-Qaeda, the terrorist group Hezbollah, and Russia.
Obama is trying to change Assad’s calculation that he can “shoot it out,” Kerry said. As part of that effort, Kerry announced in February that for the first time, the U.S. would provide direct aid to the military opposition in the form of food and medical supplies.
“So that’s the effort in Syria,” Kerry said March 18. “It’s to try to change the calculation. And President Obama is evaluating and will continue to evaluate any additional options available in order to make that happen.”
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