Confusion surrounds possible use of chemical agent in Syria

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even as President Barack Obama insisted Tuesday that the United States knows very little about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, dueling reports surfaced of a new chemical attack in a town near the Turkish border, demonstrating how complex the issue can be.

The news came out of Saraqib, a town of 30,000 about 20 miles from the Turkish border in northern Syria. The area has seen clashes between Syrian rebels and regime forces for the past year. This time, at least one person died and dozens were injured after, reports from both sides say, people were attacked with a white powder.

Mufid Abu Sa’ir, 32, who said he works as a medical aide in Saraqib, said he saw what took place when opposition fighters were attacking a nearby government base.

“I was watching from about 2 kilometers (more than 1 mile) away,” he said. “A helicopter went up and dropped white bags like balloons, with a weight in them, on the southwestern area of town. There were eight bombs, small and large, weighing from maybe 1 kilogram (2.2. pounds) to 8 kilograms (18 pounds). They put up a lot of white dust and smoke.”

Sa’ir was interviewed at a hospital in Reyhanli, Turkey, where many of those sickened were taken for treatment. The hospital declined to provide details of who was being treated and for what.

An ambulance driver from Saraqib who had also made the trip to the hospital in Reyhanli said that he did not see what happened but did see the results. He spoke by phone from inside the hospital because, he said, Turkish authorities would not allow him to leave and were keeping the patients from Saraqib in isolation.

“People who breathed in the material were suffocating, falling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, with red eyes, vomiting,” said the driver, who used the nickname Abu Ali. “I saw about 30 cases.”

Meanwhile, Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, claimed that what took place was an attempt by “terrorist groups” to frame the Syrian regime. According to news accounts, he said the attackers “spread seemingly the contents of plastic bags containing a kind of powder which must be most probably a chemical material.”

An account from Syria’s official SANA news agency offered a similar version. “Terrorists threw ‘unknown powder’ in the face of a number of citizens … to accuse the army of using chemical weapons against citizens,” the news agency reported, citing an unnamed official. The powder caused “suffocation, shiver and respiratory symptoms among the citizens,” the news agency said.

But even when the narratives agree — that a white powder was used against people who suffered because of it — the information is hardly conclusive.

Chemical weapons experts said that based on the reports, it was difficult to know what the chemical might have been. They said there is no lethal agent that works as a white powder.

If the descriptions are correct, they said a number of irritants might fit: phosgene oxime, which can burn the skin and irritate the eyes; adamsite, a World War I-era weapon that causes vomiting but is considered obsolete now; and a powder version of CS gas (commonly known as tear gas).

Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert and former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, noted that “dropping powder in plastic bags is a really inefficient delivery system.”

And Jean-Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons and a senior researcher at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said that to be useful as a weapon, phosgene oxime would “have to be delivered as a liquid. … I am not at all convinced this would be the agent in question.”

Eliot Higgins, a researcher who has written extensively about weapons used in Syria on his website, Brown Moses Blog, noted that a container that appears in a YouTube video of the Saraqib attack looks like a tear gas canister, though so far weapons experts have been unable to identify it.

He also said that claims of chemical weapons use have multiplied, though many are the result of misidentification, such as a video posted by activists in the northern Syrian city of Al-Bab. In that case, Higgins identified the weapon in the video as a Russian-made thermobaric bomb, commonly known as a fuel-air bomb.

All of which is about as definitive as Obama’s answer Tuesday to a question about Syrian chemical weapons use.

“And what we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them,” he said. “We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened. And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a lunch Tuesday that such developments haven’t really advanced the understanding of what’s going on inside of Syria, or what the U.S. reaction should be.

“Nothing I’ve heard in the last week or so has changed anything about the actions we’re taking as a military,” he said. “We’ve been planning. We’ve been developing options.”

In Congress, some, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have called for a “no-fly zone” in Syria.

Dempsey said that in developing options for response, it’s worth keeping in mind that Syria has a robust and dense air-defense system in place, about five times larger than the air-defense system over Libya when NATO agreed to impose a no-fly zone over that country.