Opposition forces and the Syrian regime agree that there was an attack in the dangerous Aleppo province that killed at least 16 people and wounded around 86 on Tuesday. And both are claiming, to some extent, that there were chemical weapons involved. The one thing they can't agree on is who fired the chemical weapons. Then again, can they really agree on anything these days? Anything at all?
A minister for the Syrian government, which isn't exactly the best purveyor of the truth, is, of course, blaming the attack on rebels, and the propaganda machine is in full swing: "Terrorists fired rockets containing chemical materials on Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province, and preliminary information suggests 15 people were killed, mostly civilians," state news agency SANA and Syrian state television said (via Agence France-Presse). They later revised their estimate several times, eventually to 25 dead. This marks the first time that Bashar al-Assad's regime has accused rebels of having chemical weapons. The rebels, of course, are denying all of this, saying "the regime was turning these reports against us." There's also the convenient timing of the election by the Syrian opposition of the American citizen Ghassan Hitto as their new minister on Tuesday. In an inaugural speech of sorts following the alleged attack and the vollies of blame, Hitto said that "there is no further discussion with Assad."
Back in July, U.S. officials had warned that Assad was moving and perhaps mobilizing his chemical weapons cache, and those officials were worried that this was a sign that he would begin using them on his own people. (There's no sign that Tuesday's attack would have been used against Syrians so much as against "foreign aggression," according to the Syrian government, which last week got a vote of confidence from Russia's foreign minister, who warned the UK of arming the rebels as Iran also stepped up pressure on the West to butt out of the conflict. Update: The Russians are now blaming the rebels for Tuesday's attack as well. Second Update: A White House official on Tuesday rejected the report that the Syrian opposition had used chemical weapons; the White House is looking carefully at the situation, while Britain's U.N. envoy says the attack has not been "fully verified.") And President Obama has specifically stated that regime's the use of chemical weapons and biological weapons would cross his red line, and perhaps signal American involvement in the region and American policy. Obama stated on August 20:
We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.
In January, Foreign Policy reported that the State Department had evidence that the Syrian government "likely used" chemical weapons on its people in a December attack. If the Syrian government's report about rebels gaining access to chemical weapons is true, then this would be a major development and change in mindset. But remember, the Syrian government isn't exactly the most truthful dictatorship in the international scene. And if Syrian rebels are in fact using chemical weapons you have to start asking where they came from — and it wouldn't make a lot of sense to turn them on the very people they're seeking to free from an oppressive military regime.
The most feasible scenario is that the opposition might have somehow stolen chemical weapons from Assad's government or taken over one of the country's many military facilities. But even then, the rebels might not know how to use them. It's "unlikely that insurgents would know how to successfully detonate chemical munitions on their own," Adnan Silou, a retired Syrian general who defected earlier this year, told The Washington Post in December. According to Silou, the scariest part may be the possibility that rebels would sell the weapons to organizations who know how to use them (read: Hezbollah, al Qaeda).
If Silou's analysis is right — that rebels wouldn't even know how to use chemical weapons — it makes the state's report a little harder to believe... as if it wasn't already. And, according to the Lebanese online news site NOW, there are reports from opposition forces that there was suffocation reported in Aleppo following a Scud attack — one of the Syrian regime's favorite weapons. The chemical-weapons accusations come one day after reports that the Syrian regime conducted air strikes into Lebanon, which would represent a "major escalation" in an already compounding sectarian conflict.