May 31, 2013
By Nuha Shabaan and Ahmed Kwider
AMMAN: As evidence mounts of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, activists fear that the low-scale use on the ground will escalate quickly in the face of international inaction.
While correspondents from BBC News, Le Monde and other news organization report witnessing chemical attacks and/or their aftermath, it is impossible to independently verify the use of these weapons. However, the breadth and scope of testimonies is growing at a rate too rapid to overlook, with activists saying that the regime is testing the international community to see how far it can go without repercussion.
“There is increasingly strong evidence of localized use of chemical weapons” in Syria, said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in response to the Le Monde investigation during which a reporter spent two months in rebel-held territory in Outer Damascus province and reported witnessing repeated low-level chemical attacks.
In April, the opposition Syrian Coalition called on the UN Security Council to send international investigators into Syria to ascertain whether banned weapons had in fact been deployed, noting that “we are preparing for larger-scale chemical weapons attacks as the Assad regime grows more confident that it will get away with its crimes.” Assad’s government has said it only wants the UN to investigate the Aleppo attack, not any in Homs and while the UN team has been ready for more than one month, the wrangling over its mission has ground it to a halt.
Syria is a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and biological warfare. While Damascus has never directly admitted to possessing chemical weapons, President Bashar Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, have repeatedly alluded to the ability to “inflict disasters” with what they have, in the words of Assad père in 1990.
The Local Council of Darayya in Outer Damascus province says that rockets that fell on the disputed city carried warheads with toxic gases that created a cloud of gas, and resulted in 42 cases of choking. The incident shows the desperation “of the regime after daily failed attempts to enter the city,” the Syrian Coalition said in a statement.
“The regime used these weapons after they failed to advance with classic weapons like tanks, artillery, rockets and the air force,” said an FSA captain based in Darayya who has participated in keeping the regime forces at bay and asked to remain anonymous. The captain said the use of the weapons is a way to “escalate” the attack on the FSA, because bombing their homes and killing their families has not deterred the rebels.
One doctor from the Darayya field hospital, an anesthesiologist by training, says his supplies are so limited, he has been treating alleged chemical-attack cases with “oxygen generators and simple medicine.” One video filmed by an activist shows dozens of patients on makeshift stretchers on the floor of a hospital, with hospital staff gently throwing buckets of water over patients seized by convulsions.
Symptoms Dr. Majd, who asked to be referred to only by his first name, has witnessed include breathing difficulty, pupil contraction, vomiting and hallucinations. “We can’t determine what it is [what is causing the symptoms] because we don’t have advanced equipment to examine it,” the doctor said. He said he treated an estimated 130 patients following the April 25 rocket attack.
Majid al-Sheikh, 21, a university student from Darayya, says he was in his home when the rockets fell near his home. A half hour later, he says he felt dizzy and nauseous, then lost consciousness and woke up at the Darayya field hospital. “What the regime is doing here, using all kinds of weapons, is meant to clear the land, and I won’t hand over my land that easily,” al-Sheikh said.
“The situation is dangerous and all the red lines [the international community] talked about before have been crossed,” Dr. Majd said. The regime wouldn’t use chemical weapons without “international cover from Russia, Iran and other countries,” he added.
In the northwest province of Idlib, activists and the FSA allege the regime has used chemical weapons in Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish border and the town of Saraqeb. The regime “wants to inflict as many losses as possible before leaving power,” said Abdel Nasser Farazat, a Ph.D. in military science and the leader of the FSA’s Ahrar Halab Brigades.
Farazat, a former Brigadier General in the Syrian Army and one of the founders of the Aleppo Military Academy, says the United States could stop the slaughter of Syrian civilians, but chooses not to because of its own agenda in Syria. “If it really wants to save the Syrian people it can, but it seems that the world is working against us,” a sentiment echoed by other Syrians interviewed for this article.
“America gave the regime a green light to use chemical weapons in some regions of Syria [that do not impact Israel],” said Jalal Khalid, 27, a Syrian from Idlib who now lives across the border in al-Raihaniya, Turkey.
The Americans “aren’t interested in whether we live or die, they want to crush the extremists and Islamists and it is the Syrian people who pay the price with internationally banned weapons,” Khalid said.
Instead of the large-scale chemical attack that would force some sort of reaction from the Obama administration, Syrian opponents to the regime predict smaller attacks around the country that will intensify.
“The Syrian regime is using chemical weapons in low concentrations and on specific areas,” said a citizen journalist in Idlib province. “The use of chemical weapons will increase in the coming days.”