As the international community tries to wrap its head around the recent allegations of chemical weapons attack in Syria, numerous unanswered questions remain on the type of agent used and the party who carried it, leaving the door open on the repercussions of such an attack on the diplomatic and military levels.
News of the “Ghoutta Massacre” have surfaced on Wednesday with the opposition accusing the Syrian government of launching a Chemical attack and killing between 1000 and 1800 people.
Understanding the attack
Based on videos of responders that surfaced after the attack and the nature of casualties, Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a publication that specializes in unconventional weapons, tells Al-Arabiya that they “suggest that it might be chemical, biological or radiological device.” The symptoms which included shortage of breath, pinpoint pupils, mucus secretions, “that it was a chemical attack, but exactly which chemical it is is difficult to decide” says the expert.
Verifying the kind of agent used and getting specifics on the attack would require according to Winfield “a sample of the agent itself” or “a blood or hair sample from a victim or casualty.” The least value evidence would be “water or soil from the area where the rockets landed.”
While lot of fingers have been pinpointed in different directions after the attack with the Assad regime denying the attack altogether, and the opposition implicating the government, three indications are mandatory to know in order to identify the source says Winfield. They are: “the agent itself, the delivery system (rocket/shell/mortar and the device that fires it) and the skill needed to bring the three together (personnel).” The most difficult part in this is identifying the agent, as Syria has the delivery system and skill “in abundance.”
Winfield notes that the “Assad regime has stated that they have a close hold on the agent”, a statement that is designed to assure Western powers as much as allies that the regime has control over these weapons. But the risk of the regime losing control over such material has long been a concern of Washington and neighbors of Syria. Winfield says that all the rebels would need “is overrun an ammunition dump with a small supply of agent” to stage such an attack.
The concern in Washington and in many Western capitals is that regardless of who staged the attack, the turn of events towards chemical weapons use in Syria or these weapons falling in the wrong hands is a “red line” and a major security threat. Andrew Tabler a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy tells Al-Arabiya that if the chemical weapons use is confirmed on such a massive scale, “it will be much harder for the Barack Obama administration not to respond” warning that this might be a sign of “more systematic use in the future if we are not there already.”
The Wall Street Journal quoting Pentagon officials said yesterday that “the U.S. began refining its military options for possible strikes in Syria.” In a parallel effort Secretary of State John Kerry is working the diplomatic track and has placed calls to his French, Russian, and Turkish counterparts to discuss potential response. Obama told CNN today that “"core national interests are now at stake” if Chemical weapons use is verified, "both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region."
Tabler does not expect an immediate military action, however, due to the “time needed to plan militarily and for diplomacy and coalition building”, a priority for the Obama administration. Still, he warns that Washington “can not afford waiting too long.”
But even military action in the form of airstrikes would not resolve the Chemicals weapons threat. Winfield points out that it is “very difficult to protect these weapons” and “the chances of killing everyone that knows how to operate these systems is slim, as is the chance of destroying every mortar, howitzer and rocket battery.” He says that “destroying a chemical agent is very difficult to do safely, and it would require special forces on the ground” something that the U.S. has been very reluctant about doing in Syria.