An Apparent Chemical Attack Strikes Damascus Just After UN Inspectors Arrive

Chemical weapons allegedly left hundreds of Syrians dying and writhing in pain, but the attack's timing seems odd.
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A boy who survived from what activists say is a gas attack cries as he takes shelter inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus on August 21, 2013. (Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters)

A YouTube playlist compiled by British blogger and investigator Eliot Higgins was posted online early this morning, documenting the aftermath of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta region of East Damascus, Syria. A child in a Ninja Turtles t-shirt screamed and covered his mouth with a damp cloth as others around him shouted and covered their faces next to a bombed-out caravan.

(Warning: The videos embedded in this story contain graphic material.)

Of the 75 videos in the playlist, many depict children in field hospital beds, coughing, shaking, and writhing in pain. An activist interviewed by the New York Times estimated the death toll to be in the hundreds.

This morning Higgins told me that the attack seemed like it stemmed from chemical weapons, adding that "the symptoms are pretty consistent with other attacks I've seen, but on a much larger scale."

The attack comes just days after UN weapons inspectors landed in Damascus to begin a probe into the alleged use of chemical weapons. The investigation had previously been delayed for months due largely to President Bashar Assad's reluctance for a broader investigation, despite his originally asking the UN to carry out investigations into rebel use of chemical weapons in an alleged attack outside the city of Aleppo.

The findings of the 20-member UN team of experts will play an important role in any potential U.S. response to the increasingly bloody, two-year conflict in Syria. President Obama has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line."

If it is a confirmed chemical weapons attack, it would seem like rather odd timing from Assad's perspective. However, because UN inspectors and the Assad regime previously agreed on three specific sites the inspectors would be permitted to examine, he might simply have launched the attack in an area designated as off-limits.

Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, denied the attack, saying the reports were "an attempt to prevent the UN commission of inquiry from carrying out its mission." 

Steve Johnson, editor of the global security magazine CBRNe World and a forensic investigations expert in chemical and biological attacks, also questioned the timing.

"Conspiracy could tie this up. Is it the opposition doing a false flag attack? Or a double bluff? It could be accidental release of gases due to the large bombardment or even misinterpretation by insurgents of victims suffering blast effects, shock etc."

On the Open Newsroom initiative, Middle East journalist James Miller noted that:

"[East Ghouta] is an area with strong opposition leanings, and is a major supply route to the front lines in the fighting in east Damascus. Assad's forces in both Mt Qassioun and in the Mezzeh airport have this area very zeroed in for rocket (typically Grads) and artillery strikes...In the video showing the baby (below), a doctor and I have been reviewing the footage. She thinks that this looks like the child is in cholinergic"

Similar videos posted by local sources in surrounding districts re-posted by suggest similar findings.

"Such a large attack can not fail to leave an evidential trail," Johnson added, "it seems to be a bizarre state tactic."

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Steve Patrick Ercolani is a data visualization fellow with National Journal. His work has appeared on Al Jazeera, NPR, and in the Village Voice.

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