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Outside View: Syrian chemical weapons
by James Zumwalt
Herndon, Va. (UPI) Apr 2, 2013

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only

Take an unpopular dictator of an Arab country with chemical/biological weapons in his arsenal and there is one certainty: He will implement every possible safety factor to ensure no one gains access to employ them against him.

While these leaders revere the use of such weapons against their foes, they absolutely fear deployment by their foes against the leaders.

The late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a perfect example. High-level security was constant at his arsenals. When used -- as he brutally did against both the Kurds and Iranians -- the deadly rounds were transported by trusted members of his own tribe to the battlefield -- each escort providing a full accounting.

Allegations were made that on March 19, chemical weapons were used in northern Syria, near Aleppo, claiming 26 lives and injuring 86 other people. Unsurprisingly -- since once chemical agents are released on the battlefield they become subject to weather and wind conditions -- victims fell on both sides.

The Assad regime blames the rebels; the rebels blame Assad. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi claims the rocket involved contained "poisonous gases" and the attack was "the first act" of the new Syrian opposition interim government. Rebel forces claim casualties could have been greater had the Syrian round not been defective.

Both sides call for an official U.N. investigation into the incident.

U.N. investigators should make three determinations: (1) was a chemical weapon used; (2) who fired it; and (3) whether Assad's arsenal is adequately secure.

Despite Syria possessing one of the largest chemical weapon arsenals in the world, mass victims don't necessarily a chemical attack make. The deaths and injuries could have involved a different agent.

Alex Thomson, writing for Britain's Channel 4, interviewed sources who indicated "a pattern of victims suffering a variety of respiratory complaints from mild breathing difficulty, through fainting and vomiting to loss of consciousness and death. In most cases there were no signs of any conventional blast injuries in terms of external lacerations, burns or fractures."

Such evidence could support a nerve agent theory.

However, a U.S. official viewing a video of victims treated at the hospital noted, "The actions in the video don't match up to a chemical weapons response."

He qualified this with the possibility hospitals lacked the right supplies and equipment for such treatment.

Thomson reported blood and soil samples as well as rocket debris were sent to the United Naitons for testing. The debris will help determine if delivery was by SCUD missile -- strongly supporting government involvement -- or artillery shell -- strongly confusing the issue, absolving neither side.

Visitors to hospitals where victims were taken report "a strong smell of chlorine." This has caused some analysts to suspect no (banned) chemical agent involvement but, instead, a deliberate exposure to chlorine. Others reject this as a small rocket couldn't have claimed so many victims. Use of chlorine isn't banned by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

As far as identifying the perpetrator, investigators have their work cut out for them.

While early reports noted the government has been moving chemical weapons, the rocket involved was fired from an area controlled by the radical Islamist group al-Nusra Front. An obvious question arises then about its possible involvement.

However, none of the rebel groups had their own chemical weapons. Thus, any such weapon most likely would have come from the government's arsenal. Any rebel group capturing such a weapon would have caused the regime immediately to report it, bringing any future use into question. Damascus never issued such a report.

Sixteen of the 26 deaths were Syrian soldiers. This doesn't absolve regime involvement as such loss of life of its own soldiers wouldn't have necessarily deterred Damascus from conducting such an attack.

Autopsies of victims would be helpful but there is no indication they will be performed. Islam considers autopsies taboo. It is interesting to note, however, Iran proved willing to violate this religious taboo during the Iran-Iraq war, making bodies of some of its troops available for autopsy to prove Iraq had used such weapons against them.

Should the United Nations find that chemical weapons activity by Assad occurred, it would constitute Syria's crossing a "red line" U.S. President Barack Obama forewarned would then trigger a U.S. response.

In the aftermath of the March 19 incident, the White House noted Obama had made this point clear to the regime and "if Assad and those under his command make the mistake of using chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them, then there will be consequences and they will be held accountable."

Undoubtedly, the United Nations will take great care, therefore, to issue only those findings heavily supported by evidence the investigation uncovers.

One other possibility concerning this attack exists, however. In using an agent not banned by treaty, Damascus -- at Tehran's urging -- may have sought to explore how seriously is Obama's commitment to act in the event the red line is crossed -- able to halt any pending U.S. response with a last minute show banned chemical agents weren't involved.

It is a commitment Tehran needs to assess as Obama's red line to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons fast approaches.

As Iran previously persuaded Syria to secretly build a nuclear facility on its behalf -- destroyed in 2007 by Israel -- such a scenario isn't implausible.

If a non-banned chemical agent was used by Damascus in the battlefield incident, still left unanswered for both Syria and Iran is whether Obama is as good as his word concerning the red lines imposed upon them.

(James G. Zumwalt, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and infantry officer, served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Persian Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)


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