The eyes of the world are being drawn back to Syria today, with a growing sense that a great evil has been unleashed, or is about to be. The big question at the moment: Have chemical weapons been used today in Syria? There are disturbing reports emerging from that war-torn country that this might be the case, with as many as 25 people dead and dozens wounded.
“We have seen those reports, they haven’t yet been fully verified,” Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters on his way into a U.N. Security Council meeting on Afghanistan. “But clearly if chemical weapons were used then that would be abhorrent and it would require a serious response from the international community,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says the U.S. is investigating the accusations, but has not seen verification that chemical weapons have been used.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized — that would change my calculus,” President Obama said in August 2012. “That would change my equation. . . . We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, warned just a few days ago in an op-ed in the Washington Post about the dangers of chemical weapons being used in Syria.
The implosion of Syria and its implications for regional security is an issue the President plans to discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordanian King Abdullah this week on his trip to the epicenter.
Here are excerpts from some of the coverage coming out of Damascus and the region:
“Syrian state media accused rebels of firing a chemical weapon for the first time on Tuesday in the north of the country, killing at least 25 people in the war-torn Aleppo province,” reports CBS News and the Associated Press. “Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of firing a chemical weapon on a long-range missile. Neither of the accusations could immediately be verified, and a chemical weapons expert in the U.K. told CBSNews.com there was very little evidence to suggest any actual chemical weapons had been deployed. The Syrian state news agency SANA said ‘terrorists’ had fired a rocket ‘containing chemical materials’ into the area around the village of Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo. The regime regularly uses the term terrorists to refer to rebels fighting to overthrow authoritarian President Bashar Assad.”
“The rocket which was launched from Kafr Da’el in Neirab is a grave escalation,” Syrian information minister Omran al-Zubi said in a televised statement, according to the AP. “The terrorists used a weapon that is banned in accordance with international law.”
“‘The states which are arming, financing and housing the terrorists should be questioned about this crime,’ added al-Zubi. Syrian officials said at least 25 people, most of them civilians, were killed and dozens more wounded.”
“A Reuters photographer said victims he had visited in Aleppo hospitals were suffering breathing problems and that people had said they could smell chlorine after the attack,” Reuters reported. “‘I saw mostly women and children,’ said the photographer, who cannot be named for his own safety. He quoted victims at the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital as saying people were dying in the streets and in their houses….Syrian state TV aired footage of what it said were casualties of the attack arriving at one hospital in Aleppo. Men, women and children were rushed inside on stretchers as doctors inserted medical drips into their arms and oxygen tubes into their mouths. None had visible wounds to their bodies, but some interviewed said they had trouble breathing. An unidentified doctor interviewed on the channel said the attack was either ‘phosphorus or poison’ but did not elaborate. ‘The Free Syrian Army hit us with a rocket, we smelled something and then everyone got dizzy and fell down. People were falling to the ground,’ said a sobbing woman in a flowered veil, lying on a stretcher with a drip in her arm. A young girl on a stretcher wept as she said: ‘My chest closed up. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t breathe…We saw people falling dead to the floor. My father fell, he fell and now we don’t know where he is. God curse them, I hope they die.’ A man in a green surgical mask, who said he had been helping to evacuate the casualties, said: ‘It was like a powder, and anyone who breathed it in fell to the ground.'”
Reuters reports that the Russian government is backing the Assad regime in its claim that the rebels have used chemical weapons. “A case of the use of chemical weapons by the armed opposition was recorded early in the morning of March 19 in Aleppo province,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said after President Bashar Assad’s government and rebels accused each other of launching a deadly chemical attack. “We are very seriously concerned by the fact that weapons of mass destruction are falling into the hands of the rebels, which further worsens the situation in Syria and elevates the confrontation in the country to a new level.”