The news comes this morning of another chemical attack in Syria, presumably by Pro-Assad forces, and the report is accompanied by the inevitable footage of stricken children. Even from afar, it might be possible to smell a rat here.
Now in its sixth year, the Syrian war has witnessed plenty of cruelty from all sides, and the only really good news is that ISIS/Daesh is being slowly ground down. However, it is foolish to imagine that any one of the three major factions are centrally controlled or directed. Pro-government forces are not necessarily government forces and blaming Assad for a possible chemical weapons attack is meaningless. Besides, given the history of fabricated provocations from Bosnia, Hamas, the Palestinians, and in this conflict so far blame might just as easily go to ISIS.
Syria did have chemical weapons before the Civil War; having developed nerve and blister agents in the early 1980s. Unlike Saddam Hussein, they had no history of using those, and were not known to be making choking and blood agents. Nerve and blister agents are ‘area denial’ weapons and are not very efficient for use against people inside buildings. Choking and blood agents are much more effective for this.
However, a crude improvised chemical weapon was learned from the Tamil Tigers – adding tanks of chlorine to a conventional ‘barrel bomb’ or truck bomb could produce a small cloud of chlorine gas. This – as Canadians should remember from the debut of chemical warfare in 1915 – is a choking agent. It isn’t a very efficient one, but it takes no expertise to prepare or deliver. Any murderous amateur can do it, and the Syrian Civil War has no shortage of those on either side.
Simple chemical weapons like Sarin (a nerve gas) date to the 1940s, while phosgene (a choking agent) and mustard gas both date to the First World War. Almost anyone with some training in chemistry can mix up a batch.
The Syrian government has no real reason to deliberately use chemical weapons at the moment… the long ghastly attrition of the war has tipped their way. The rebels, however, are desperate for international sympathy and political support. One could give them more of a motive than one could to Assad’s side.
There is also the history of staged incidents and provocations, from the Bosnian government dumping 120mm mortars into its own markets; to the many marvelous productions of ‘Pallywood’ over the years.
Various Jihadists have argued that innocent Muslims who die as a result of their activities are themselves Shaheed – martyrs – and will be accordingly rewarded in the Afterlife which is to their net benefit. This has made the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS more than a little ‘careless’ about collateral casualties in the past even if they carefully guard the hides of their own leaders.
Method and opportunity being roughly equal, there is only the question of motive. So was there some chemical use in Syria yesterday? Probably. Was it someone on the Assad ‘side’? Probably not.