Questions Surround Latest Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

The White House is "deeply concerned" about reports, but the attack is not confirmed.

Syrian military soldiers check identifications at a check point in Damascus on Wednesday. (National Journal)

Possibly thousands of people died in Syria on Wednesday from what appears to be the largest chemical-weapons attack since Saddam Hussein killed 5,000 Kurds in 1988.

A graphic video from Syria shows hundreds of alleged victims in undisclosed locations, reportedly in the Ghouta region, grasping for breath, with foam coming from their mouths,and clearly in pain, as doctors and others attempt to revive them. Opposition groups say as many as 1,300 people died in the gas attack near Damascus.

But these reports raise some concerns.

The timing is curious (United Nations scientists arrived this week to investigate separate attacks in the country). The video evidence is inconclusive (some experts say it shows signs of a chemical attack, others think it could be tear gas). And both sides are denying involvement (as with all chemical attacks in the conflict thus far). So, was there a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs this week? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Speaking on BBC News, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British Chemical and Biological counterterrorism forces, said the video showed signs of a chemical attack.

The previous 13 alleged attacks, we've seen casualties of one or two, which is not really synonymous of chemical weapons. Here, I've heard figures from 50 to 500, and certainly the footage that you're showing and I've seen are in the tens and hundreds. Now, that is not really what you'd expect from conventional weapons. So, there is something else that is killing these people, and a nerve agent, a chemical weapon, could well be that.

Bayan Baker, a nurse at the Douma Emergency Collection facility, confirms to Reuters:

Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs, and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve-gas victims.

But CBRNe World News editor Gwyn Winfield, who specializes in unconventional weapons, disagrees, writing that the video makes it hard to determine the signs and symptoms of such an attack.

Clearly, respiratory distress, some nerve spasms, and a half-hearted wash-down (involving water and bare hands?!), but it could equally be a riot control agent as a CWA. There is an extended shot of a child's face, but it, the light, is too poor to see the pupils; at least this time there is none of the suspicious white froth that categorized early videos.

The U.N. team that is currently in Syria examining three alleged chemical attacks could determine whether sarin or other nerve agents were used Wednesday morning. However, the team's mandate limits it to only those three sites and it's unlikely the Assad regime would allow the representatives into this town. And the more time that passes after an attack, the less likely it is that scientists will be able discover the nerve agent — a problem the U.N. inspectors know full well as they head to sites of attacks from six months ago.

The European Union has called for an investigation into the Wednesday attack. And the White House said on Wednesday it was "deeply concerned" by the reports coming out of Syria, saying U.S. officials "are working urgently to gather additional information."

"The United States strongly condemns any and all use of chemical weapons," said White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest. "Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable."

Earnest challenged the Syrian government to allow U.N. investigators to examine the site of this latest alleged attack.

None of this answers the question of who was behind the attack. Throughout the conflict between government and rebel forces, both sides have accused the other of chemical-weapons attacks. Western officials have said that if chemical weapons were used, it was likely done by the Assad regime.

Indeed, this latest development further complicates an already volatile situation and difficult decision for world leaders on a path forward. President Obama has said, on several occasions, that the use of chemical weapons is a "red line," and has put in motion plans on providing military assistance to rebel fighters. But critics of the president have said he's moved too slowly in doing so.

As one U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy on Monday, "As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won't do anything."

Here is the video of the victims. Some readers may find it too graphic.