Another poison gas attack in Syria?

The Times of Israel has a report that poison gas has once again been deployed in Damascus, based on claims by rebel forces:

The report was based on rebel sources, who said the attack took place in the Jobar neighborhood of the capital. The rebel sources said they could not tell what kind of chemical weaponry had been used, but that it was a poison gas of some kind, and was causing injuries, including breathing difficulties.

Footage posted to YouTube, and broadcast on Al Arabiya TV, showed a young man having trouble breathing, and receiving medical treatment. There were no immediate reports of fatalities.

This is the video referenced by the Times of Israel.  It’s a minute of footage showing a several men coughing into oxygen masks, which doesn’t give us as much to work with as the videos and photos of victims from the August “red line” attack.

The Times also refers to a Foreign Policy article teasing the upcoming U.N. report on chemical weapons, which is said to finger the Assad regime as the perpetrator, based on admittedly circumstantial evidence:

The inspection team, which is expected on Monday to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon with a highly anticipated report on a suspected Aug. 21 nerve agent attack in the suburbs of Damascus, will not directly accuse the Syrian regime of gassing its own people, according to three U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the investigation. But it will provide a strong circumstantial case — based on an examination of spent rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples — that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability.

“I know they have gotten very rich samples — biomedical and environmental — and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses,” said the Western official. “It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got.” The official, who declined to speak on the record because of the secrecy surrounding the U.N. investigation, could not identify the specific agents detected by the inspector team, but said, “You can conclude from the type of evidence the [identity of the] author.”

This particular report is said to be focused on the big August attack in al-Ghouta, although that wasn’t the reason the U.N. inspectors were in Syria.  They were investigating other alleged chemical weapons deployments when the al-Ghouta attack occurred.  The Foreign Policy article says they plan to return to Syria to finish their work on the other incidents later, although no timetable is given.

It doesn’t sound as if this U.N. report is anything like the “slam-dunk” case for Assad’s culpability that the Obama Administration keeps talking about, because a few paragraphs after being told that a strong circumstantial case strongly points at the Syrian strongman, we get this:

Under the terms of its mandate, however, the U.N. inspectors are only authorized to conclude whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria, not assign responsibility for their use.

While Western diplomats say they are confident that U.N. report would strengthen the case against the Syrian government, they said they expected the case would not fundamentally alter the course of diplomatic efforts to contain the chemical weapons threat in Syria. “It’s not a game changer,” said one diplomat.

To play devil’s advocate – fairly literally, given that we’re talking about Bashar Assad, who really should consider recording an audiobook of “The Silence of the Lambs,” because his line reading of “It puts the lotion in the basket” would be ultra-creepy – a lot of this “circumstantial” evidence consists of videos that would not be all that difficult to fake, and would in any event do little to establish the identity of the perpetrator.  People gassed by brutal rebels look just like people gassed by a murderous dictator.

It would be incredibly foolish of Assad to drop more gas bombs right now, while Vladimir Putin is towing him into the safe harbor of U.N. chemical weapons “confiscation” – a dicey process that would take many years to complete, giving him plenty of time to do away with the rebels using everything else in his arsenal, which has a lot of backwards “Rs” in the labels on the packing crates.  (And, according to the UK Daily Mailsome of the chemical weapons containers have extra vowels, for example an extra “u” in the word “colour.”  British companies were allegedly shipping chemicals to Assad under legitimate export licenses, but it was material he could easily re-purposed into sarin gas weapons.  The discovery is causing quite a bit of trouble for British industry and government officials.)

No matter how farcical the confiscation process might be, it’s a fairly invulnerable shield against Western military intervention… unless Assad continues using the weapons.  Perhaps Assad wants to demonstrate his defiance, or he’s calculated that the hapless Obama team has been so thoroughly outmaneuvered that he can get away with a little nose-tweaking.  It would be a bonehead play, while of course the rebels have every reason to claim Assad is using banned weapons again.  That’s hardly proof of Assad’s innocence, but it’s worth keeping in mind as the new reports are considered with appropriate care.  With the “peace process” under way, a very high degree of confidence in further violations would be needed to have any chance of changing the game.


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