Chemical weapons strike in Syria?

According to Syrian rebels, the Assad regime lobbed some rockets full of toxic gas across the fabled “Obama red line” on Wednesday, killing up to 1,000 people in the Ghouta region, which is a suburb of the capital city of Damascus.  The government has been engaged in heavy rocket and artillery bombardment of rebel positions in the region.  Rebel spokesmen contend the chemical agent employed by the government was so powerful that it has killed some of the doctors who were treating the wounded.  They also say the attack was deliberately targeted at sleeping civilians.

Such claims from rebel forces are generally treated with a dash of skepticism by observers, since the rebels have obvious motives for provoking international action against the regime.  This would also seem like an awkward moment for Assad to carry out a major escalation of chemical warfare against his enemies, since a team of twenty United Nations chemical weapons team is currently in Syria, investigating earlier reports of WMD deployment.

But the rebels have backed up their claim with video and photographic evidence, as reported by the Associated Press:

Shocking images emerged from the purported attack, showing pale, lifeless bodies of children lined up on floors of makeshift hospitals and others with oxygen masks on their faces as they were attended to by paramedics. One appeared to be a toddler clad in diapers. There was no visible blood or wounds on their skin.

The reported death toll Wednesday would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria’s civil war. There were conflicting reports, however, as to what exactly transpired and the death toll ranged from a hundred to 1,300. Syria’s Information Minister called the activists’ claim a “disillusioned and fabricated one whose objective is to deviate and mislead” the U.N. mission.

Reuters quotes a nurse who put the death toll much lower than the thousand-plus claimed by rebel commanders, but seemed convinced the victims were indeed exposed to toxic chemicals:

A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, earlier told Reuters the death toll collated from medical centers was at least 213.

“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” the nurse said. Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.

Here’s one of the video clips making its way around the Internet:

The Syrian government characterizes this as an “attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission from carrying out its duties,” according to the BBC, whose Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen says the videos he has seen “would be difficult to fake.”  A somewhat more ambivalent analysis from a professor of microbiology quoted by the BBC concluded with a “best guess that this is an authentic video of the aftermath of an attack with some incapacitating chemical agent,” but probably not sarin gas or a similar weapon, as they would have left signs of visible blistering.

The Associated Press quotes a number of demands for the U.N. inspection team to be given immediate access to the site of the reported attack, coupled with the usual bucket of sour grapes from Syria’s patrons in Russia:

France’s president demanded the United Nations be granted access to the site of Wednesday’s alleged attack, while Britain’s foreign secretary said if the claims are verified it would mark “a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”

The White House said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by the reports. Spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House had requested that the U.N. “urgently investigate this new allegation.”

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the U.N. team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” Earnest said.

Syria’s ally Russia, however, described the reports as “alarmist.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich issued a statement in which he said the “aggressive information campaign” laying full blame on the Syrian government side suggests this is a planned provocation aimed at undermining efforts to convene peace talks between the two sides.

NBC News reports that the U.N. Security Council is holding an emergency session on Wednesday afternoon to review the situation.