News / Middle East

Reports of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria Murky

FILE - Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack on Tuesday, in Khan al-Assal area near the northern city of Aleppo, Mar. 23, 2013.
FILE - Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack on Tuesday, in Khan al-Assal area near the northern city of Aleppo, Mar. 23, 2013.
Amid on-going uncertainty over who used chemical weapons in Syria and when, there have been claims and counterclaims that analysts say are difficult to verify.

Western experts believe Syria has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, including mustard gas, the more modern sarin and even VX - the most toxic of all chemical agents.

But Greg Thielman, an expert with the private Arms Control Association, said the Syrian government lacks a track record of using the weapons.

“Unlike Iraq, and the history of Iraq, we don’t have a pattern of Syrian usage of chemical weapons over the years," he said.

"This isn’t to suggest that they have a benign regime,” Thielman said. “It’s just that it was Iraq that set new post-war records for massive uses of chemical weapons against Iran in that long war and then against some of its people in the infamous [1988] attack on the village of Halabja, for example.”

Recent charges

But British, French and Israeli officials have recently charged that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used small amounts of chemical weapons against rebel forces.

Charles Blair, a chemical weapons expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said the Israelis base their assessment essentially on aerial photographs and camera footage taken in hospitals where people are said to exhibit signs of sarin poisoning.

“For the British and for the French the proof is interviews. It is also blood samples,” Blair said.  “It is believed that it is blood samples that were provided to them by the rebels. So it’s automatically suspect, because obviously the rebels have everything to gain in framing the Assad government.”

The United States has taken a more cautious approach, saying U.S. intelligence agencies “assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria - specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

At the same time, the Obama administration said there needs to be a full investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria.

The United Nations has set up a team to investigate such claims. But the Assad government and the U.N. have not agreed on terms of access. The inspectors are currently in Cyprus

Blair said the U.N. option seems at a dead end.

“And the only other possibility then would be if the U.S. had a covert team that was operative in an area that had an alleged sarin attack and they were able to get in there and get samples quickly, control the sample, control the chain of custody and then take it and verify it in U.S. or British labs and do it that way. But it doesn’t seem to me that the Obama administration really has the appetite for that.”

Assessing blame

Experts said one has to be extremely careful about the so-called evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria, whether by the Assad government or by the opposition.

U.N. officials this week scrambled to say they had no conclusive findings after former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said there are indications rebel forces had used the nerve agent sarin.

Thielman, the Arms Control Association analyst, said one has to be 100 percent sure of the information before even talking about what to do next in Syria - such as military intervention to secure the stockpiles of chemical weapons.

“Iraq hangs over us as a negative example of getting into an enormously significant commitment on the basis of what turned out to be false information,” he said.

Thielman said “we knew a lot more about Saddam Hussein and his chemical weapons status at the time of our invasion of Iraq, than we do in the case of Syria. And we got it wrong even then.”

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

You May Like

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Photogallery UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid