Syrian opposition activists claim more than 1,000 people were killed after government forces launched rockets with toxic agents in the Damascus suburbs early Wednesday. While the U.S. has not independently confirmed that chemical weapons were used, Israel’s minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel Radio that it believes the reports of the attack are credible. Videos apparently showing the graphic and disturbing aftermath of the alleged attacks on the rebel-held eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta were posted to social media but could not be independently verified. The clips showed children choking and vomiting, while adults writhed in agony, appearing not to have any visible wounds.
Columns of smoke rising from heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in West Damascus on Thursday, August 22. (Photo: AP)
Musab abu Qutada, a spokesman for the local military council of the Free Syria Army, who was near the targeted area told NBC News via Skype, “We have about 1,228 victims. We are in need of medicine. We are in need of medical staff.” He described the “chemical bombardment” as so strong that doctors at the scene had also died from the the effects of the gas. “The areas that were targeted were civilian areas, they are not military areas. They targeted women and children to apply pressure on the Free Syrian Army,” Musab abu Qutada explained. The Syrian government denied that chemical weapons had been used with state television quoting a source as saying there was “no truth whatsoever” to the reports. The Russian government–one of Assad’s strongest supporters–suggested that the opposition had staged the attack in a “pre-planned provocation.” Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that if chemical weapons were used, then it “has been committed by the terrorist groups because escalating and internationalizing the crisis in Syria serve their interests.”
The attack came as UN investigators were already on the ground in Syria, there to investigate previous incidents where smaller quantities of chemical weapons were alleged to be used. The UN Security Council was unable to agree in an emergency meeting held Wednesday on whether those experts should immediately investigate the new incident.
If the reports are confirmed, the use of the toxic agents would be most serious in decades. It would also mean that the Syrian regime has once again and dramatically violated President Obama’s “red line“, where if the Syrian government began moving or using chemical weapons, it would constitute a “game-changer” for U.S. policy that would be met with “enormous consequences.”
With extensive video, photo, and eyewitness accounts, it appears very clear that something major and horrible happened Wednesday in Syria. As Jeffrey White of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy points out, the “calculated act” also “coincides with the anniversaries of two ineffectual U.S. policy pronouncements: President Obama’s August 18, 2011, declaration that Bashar al-Assad must “step aside,” and his August 20, 2012, statement that the use of chemical weapons (CW) would be a game changer.” Yet President Obama has not acted to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria, nor has he moved to prevent any further escalation of the conflict.
The issue is not just about the reality that America’s credibility in foreign affairs is at stake. The real problem is that the Obama administration lacks a coherent policy in Syria now—over two years into the Syrian civil war. As predicted, the conflict will continue to escalate as Assad and his backers in Tehran and Moscow continue to see no consequences for their rogue behavior.