Report: Assad's forces use chemical weapons on Syrian rebels

This report is the whole Syrian civil war in a nutshell. It’s horribly brutal; both sides are sufficiently dubious that you’re not sure whom to believe; and it’s going to take a higher death toll than this to get the west involved.

Seven people have died in Homs after they inhaled a “poisonous gas” used by government forces in a rebel-held neighbourhood, activists said.

Activists also told Al Jazeera on Sunday night that scores of others were affected in al-Bayyada neighbourhood. Side effects reported include nausea, relaxed muscles, blurred vision, and breathing difficulties…

“The situation is very difficult. We do not have enough facemasks. We don’t know what this gas is but medics are saying it’s something similar to Sarin gas,” Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, told Al Jazeera.

A doctor treating patients subsequently said the gas seemed to be a concentrated form of tear gas that has not been used in Homs before. Inhaling large amounts can lead to suffocation and death, he said.

Follow the link up top for videos of people gasping for air, which, while tough to watch, do next to nothing to corroborate the details of the alleged attack.

Any reason to believe that Assad really might have dropped sarin here? Yup. Read this Danger Room report about alarm bells sounding in western intel circles lately over his arsenal. U.S. officials thought he was planning to go chemical back in July; since then, they’ve detected attempts by the regime to buy sarin precursors and, just three weeks ago, somehow discovered that Syrian forces were building sarin warheads capable of being dropped from planes. According to a statement released by the rebels, the mystery gas that descended on Homs was dropped from planes. Last week, David Ignatius claimed that he’s heard from Syrian defectors and “independent sources” that the regime has a certain number of mobile chemical-weapons labs, and that Lebanese officials were warned in November to be on the lookout for them possibly crossing the border. The timing of all this makes sense: After months and months of stalemate, there now seems to be real momentum on the rebels’ side — to the point where some analysts think Assad has just weeks left. If that’s true, then he might have decided to go for broke. The final stage of going for broke would be chemical.

Any reason to not believe that Assad might have dropped sarin here? Yup. For one thing, it seems awfully strange that the regime would cross the west’s ultimate red line to carry out an attack as small in scale as this. If you’re going to risk a no-fly zone being imposed and, maybe, retaliation from the U.S. Air Force, you’d want more from your chemical attack than just seven dead. Unless this was some sort of trial run (or, maybe more likely, a propaganda gambit aimed at scaring the rebels without killing so many as to trigger a U.S. response), then Assad’s probably not behind it. For another thing, there’s reason to believe that the rebels themselves have crude chemical weapons; propaganda videos showing them gassing rabbits as a warning to Assad were circulating online just a few weeks ago. Given that some significant chunk of them are looney-tunes jihadists, who’s to say they didn’t stage a chemical attack on civilians themselves in order to frame Assad and draw the west in on their side? (Ignatius is worried enough about rebel disinformation that he cited the infamous Iraqi informer “Curveball” in his column as a reason to remain kinda sorta skeptical about chemical weapons claims in Syria.) A new CNN poll shows 52 percent of Americans opposed to any sort of military intervention, but that margin is narrow enough that a spectacular chemical attack might tip it the other way. The rebels have a lot to gain politically from the WMD genie leaving the bottle.

Exit question one: Even if Assad’s on the ropes, does it make sense for him to go chemical? One of his best bits of leverage in preserving some sort of space for himself and the Alawites in post-war Syria is the west’s fear of a total jihadi takeover. If he busts out the sarin, that leverage is gone; the west will be forced to commit itself to his total destruction, if only as a warning to other regimes with WMD not to follow his path. Strategically, the smarter play (especially in light of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt) is to try to convince the west somehow that whatever follows him will be worse. Exit question two: What if the Homs attack wasn’t carried out by Assad or the rebels? What I mean is, what if enough of Assad’s chemical stockpile has now gone loose that freelance groups — a subgroup of mujahid rebels, or an especially fanatic division of Syrian army soldiers — have gotten hold of some weapons and are staging attacks on their own initiative? That’s the most frightening possibility here given what it portends for the wider region. And don’t think it can’t happen.