The main Syrian opposition coalition says the suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus was launched by a special unit of President Bashar al-Assad’s army from a mountain range north of the capital.
In a report
issued Wednesday, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) said the attack on Ghouta and nearby areas on the outskirts of Damascus was carried out by the Army’s 155th
Brigade in the early hours of August 21. It said the suspected chemical weapons were delivered by short-range missiles launched from a military compound known as Qutayfa in the Qalamoun Mountains north of the city.
The SNC claims were consistent with what chemical warfare experts have been saying in recent days. Jeffrey White, a former U.S. intelligence officer now with the Washington Institute research group, said
last week “CW [chemical weapons] use also fits the regime's longstanding pattern of behavior and its current situation on the ground.”
“First, the military situation in the Damascus area, while not critical, has not been going in the regime's favor,” White said. “Second, military developments in other parts of the country may have altered the regime's calculus.”
Sarin gas may have been used
The SNC and its allied have been trying to topple the Assad government for the past 29 months and the fighting has killed more than 100,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The SNC report said it was still too soon to confirm what specific kind of chemical weapon may have been involved last week, but added, “Medical reports show the victims exhibited symptoms consistent with exposure to sarin gas.”
White and other experts speculated last week that sarin chemicals were involved, but that “determining the specific agent involved will require technical analysis.”
A United Nations team is now inspecting the attack area and has taken samples for analysis.
The six-page SNC report claimed that more than 1,500 Syrians died in the missile attack, and approximately 5,000 were injured. Other reports have estimated fewer casualties.
There has been no independent verification of the SNC casualty claims and the Assad government has denied any chemical weapons attack took place.
The SNC report included a map of greater Damascus and photographs of the bodies of children arranged side by side on their backs and wrapped in white sheets.
Planning a chemical attack
Chemical warfare experts said last week the attack appeared to have been a well-coordinated operation involving artillery, surface-to-surface missiles and possibly aircraft.
“Attacks by air units would be a decisive indicator of regime responsibility,” said White. “The operation is unlike any of the previous cases of CW use in Syria, which were relatively small in scale, limited in terms of casualties, and often seemingly designed to reduce the risk of detection by outside observers.”
The SNC said its report was based on information provided by “officers from Assad forces and Assad Air Force intelligence sympathetic to the revolution,” as well as civilian activists and attack survivors.
The SNC report said that on the night of August 20, warplanes conducted five air raids on the Ghouta area near Damascus and that only helicopters remained in the area when the government began firing the missiles.
It said the attack started at 2:31 a.m. when 16 missiles were fired at East Ghouta. Relief operations were interrupted 49 minutes later when more missiles were fired at Ain Tarma. The report said additional missiles were fired an hour and a half later.
Victims were taken to medical facilities in Daraya, another Damascus suburb, the SNC said.