John McCain recently visited with Syrian rebel leaders inside the civil war torn country where he was told about alleged chemical weapons attacks from the Assad regime. These allegations seem to be supported by evidence presented in a lengthy and detailed report from the French magazine Le Monde accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons frequently in the fight around Damascus, the country's capital, over the last two months.
The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin reports Sen. John McCain secretly met with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, inside Syria, where he was told about chemical attacks from the Assad regime. The rebels requested the U.S. government supply them with heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and air strikes against the regime. This report came out on the heels of the monster report from French magazine Le Monde alleging the Assad regime has been using chemical weapons frequently in the fight for the country's capital. Two Le Monde reporters were embedded with Syrian rebels for two months. They witnessed chemical attacks "several days in a row" while visiting the front lines with soldiers in Damascus. The gas attacks usually causes eyes to burn, pupils to dilate, and throats to tighten leading to violent coughing. Sometimes they will start to puke if exposed long enough. If they don't receive treatment quickly, they will die. It's unclear what chemical is being used. Some rebels suspect they are combining different chemicals, potentially tear gas and sarin, among others, before distributing them through grenades, rockets or specially placed mines in order to mask what's being used. The combination makes it harder for doctors to diagnose the problem, leading to potentially wasting medicines that are precious and hard to come by. At one point during the trip, one of Le Monde's photographers was the victim of a chemical attack:
On April 13, the day of a chemical attack on a zone of the Jobar front, Le Monde's photographer was with rebels who have been waging war out of ruined buildings. He saw them start to cough before donning their gas masks, apparently without haste although in fact they were already exposed. Men crouched down, gasping for breath and vomiting. They had to flee the area at once. Le Monde's photographer suffered blurred vision and and respiratory difficulties for four days.
The next step for the Syrian rebels is discovering what, exactly, the regime is using against them. But when you're on the front lines of a war and territories surrounding you change hands by the day, getting information out of the country for testing is next to impossible. "Samples must be taken from fighters whose exposure to gas has left them dead or in hospital, and these samples then need to be sent to specialised laboratories abroad," Le Monde reports. "A certain number of such samples have been taken and are being studied." They have video showing the complex network rebels use to get to the front line, rebel soldiers hastily putting on gas masks after they start to suffer symptoms of a chemical attack, and doctors treating civilians and soldiers alike affected by the attacks:
This is not the first time videos of chemical weapons use in the Syrian conflict have appeared. The U.S. admitted they have evidence of chemical weapons — including sarin nerve gas — have been used in the civil war. But the U.S. decided not to intervene with any military support for the rebels, despite the President's (off the cuff) indication chemical weapons use would be a "red line."
This is all coming ahead of the Syrian peace conference in Geneva next month. Things were looking up for the proposed peace talks, brokered by the U.S. and Russia, on Saturday when it seemed the opposition and the regime both agreed to attend. There were some caveats on both sides, but the chances they would be negotiating looked brighter than ever before. Meanwhile, the European Union can't decide whether or not they should help the Syrian rebels. London and France lobbied to end the European Union's Syrian arms embargo so they could supply rebel forces with weapons, but Austria refused. This is all leading up to the embargo's June 1st expiration date. If the Union can't decide something unanimously then each country will be free to independently cooperate with the rebels or the Assad regime.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.