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Syria Special: Assessing Tuesday's "Chemical Weapons Attacks"...and Who is Responsible

Damage in the town of Khan al Asal, west of Aleppo

See Also Today's Syria Live Coverage: Trading Blame Over "Chemical Attacks"
Tuesday's Syria Live Coverage: Opposition Coalition Names Ghassan Hitto as Prime Minister

Update: As one might expect, there is new information continuously being examined. Updates are posted at the bottom of the main article.

Click here to skip to the updates article below.

The original article is below:

On Tuesday, the Assad regime claimed that insurgents had carried out their first attack with chemical weapons, in a town in Aleppo Province, killing 25 people. The insurgents claimed that it was the regime using the weapons, dropping bombs or firing Scud missiles, near Damascus.

So what can be established from what we do know?

Locations of Attacks.

On Tuesday, members of the Syrian opposition claimed that a chemical weapons attack took place in Al Otaybah, in the East Ghouta region outside of Damascus (map).

Both the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime also reported a chemical weapons attack in Khan al Asal, west of Aleppo (map). As of the moment this piece was being written, the Assad regime and various State media outlets had not mentioned Al Otaybah.

The regime's media posted videos and pictures of the victims of the Aleppo attack, and the opposition posted videos and pictures of those affected in the Damascus attack. Neither, as far as we can tell, have posted videos or pictures of the area where these chemical gases were reportedly released.

These locations are both on or near the front lines of battle, with fighting ongoing over the last three days. Khan al Asal is in the crosshairs of the opposition, as a major group of well-equipped insurgents advance on Aleppo city through this district.

Al Otaybah is in insurgent control, but it is close to an Assad base that has recently fallen to the east. It is north of the fighting around Damascus International Airport. It is south of Adra, a regime stronghold that is slipping to the rebels, and it is east of the districts of central Damascus that are the front lines of rebel control. It is insurgent-held territory, but one that is isolated from the populace of the city.

The Reports

In Al Otaybah, near Damascus, the insurgents initially reported the attack. News spread that residents were suffering from chronic respiratory problems, and some had even died. The town was also targeted by airstrikes, but there was some confusion over whether surface-to-surface rockets had landed.

Videos showed the victims --- civilians and possibly insurgent fighters --- collected and treated in a field hospital. To our knowledge, the regime did not lose soldiers in the attack, which was not reported by officials or State media.

In Khan al Asal, State news agency SANA reported that 25 were killed in the attack, including children, and at least 110 were wounded. The numbers have not been verified, but pictures and videos of the dead and wounded point to significant casualties.

Hours before the state media reports, opposition Facebook pages already had reports of a chemical weapons attack in Khan al Asal. There were also early reports of a Scud missile falling on the city and causing death and destruction, although the first tweet that mentions a Scud does not mention chemical weapons. Soon after this, there was a that the Scud missed the opposition-held areas and fell on a pro-Assad rally, releasing the toxic gas.

Whatever the circumstances, it does appear that pro-Assad forces and supporters were affected by this attack.

The Chemicals

The attack does not match any known characteristics of chemical weapons. Weaponized nerve agents like Sarin or VX are odorless and have fast-moving and devastating impacts. Weaponized chlorine gas leaves terrible skin burns. If these were used, we would expect to see more casualties, and extremely severe injuries.

This leaves four possibilities. The first is that this was not a chemical attack at all, but chemicals were dispersed into the air by an explosion of a shell, bomb, or surface-to-surface missile. There are many pesticides and chemicals, used for industrial or agricultural purposes, that could have been dispersed by a strike. If this theory is true, either the rebels or the regime could have been ultimately responsible for each attack.

There is only one problem with this theory. Since the start of this conflict there has only been one other incident, in Homs in December, of a "chemical gas" being dispersed in such quantities. We would expect to see many more if such a dispersal pattern could be caused by shelling and aerial attacks. The occurrence of a second and third incident, hundreds of miles apart, at nearly the exact same time would be beyond extraordinary.

The next theory is that an incendiary weapon struck materials that burned and released toxic fumes. However, as far as we know, there are no reports of such weapons being used in either location yesterday. There are no videos of burning buildings, and the videos did not point to singificant burn casualties.

The third theory is an improvised chemical attack. Chemical weapons are possible to make by mixing regularly available poisons, like chlorine or certain pesticides. However, to effectively disperse these weapons, it is necessary to use a car bomb or other high-powered improvised explosion. We see no evidence of an explosion of this kind at either location, and neither the regime nor the opposition have reported such an incident.

This brings us to our final theory: this is a low-level weapon, dispersed through either a fairly sophisticated and unknown means, or dispersed through an aircraft-dropped bomb or a surface-to-surface missile.

Both airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles were reported by the opposition before the regime reported the incidents. In both cases, the amount of victims indicates a large quantity of diffuse gas, pointing to a large airdropped bomb or surface-to-surface missile and discounting an artillery shell.

The rebels do not have such weapons. The regime does.

Our assessment is that this final theory is the most likely. The rebels are advancing at the two locations of the incidents.

The insurgents have made gains away from the battlefield, establishing new leadership with signals that the international community is lining up behind the opposition. If the opposition conducted attack, or even if it was blamed without proof for such an attack, these efforts could be derailed.

The regime has the incentive to blame the insurgents while striking the people of Khan al Asal and Al Otaybah. In the case of Khan al Asal, it seems the effort backfired or was designed specifically to look like insurgent action.

A Conclusion...For Now

In the end, what evidence suggests that the insurgents did this? There is none, beyond the late-emerging claims of the regime and its supporters. On the other hand, there is evidence that the regime was firing missiles and dropping bombs on these locations. Only one side, the regime, is known to possess the weapons needed to do this --- both the chemicals, and the delivery systems.

We have documented insurgent crimes before. As recently as last Monday, we published information that might embarrass those in the West who support the rebels. On this occasion, however, the evidence does not support the theory that an insurgent group has conducted this attack.

UPDATES: All new updates will be posted below:

1611 GMT: Yesterday, the Syrian Information Minister did claim that the rebels fired a rocket at Khan al Asal from the town of Kafer Da'al, just 50 kilometers to the north (map). This is interesting, and potentially important, but there are two problems with this theory. The first problem is that it does not explain the chemical weapons attack near Damascus, and incident that the regime has yet to recognize. It's hard to imagine that two concurrent incidents were not related.

The second problem is that many arms experts, including ones whom we trust, do not believe that the rebels control an adequate chemical weapons delivery system, like a functional Scud or Frog-7 missile.

So far, the best criticism of that analysis is that there is evidence that the rebels may have access to chlorine. However, such chemical weapons would need to be dispersed by some mechanism, and in the improvised chemical attacks we're aware of, the dispersal mechanism is always an explosion, usually a car bomb, and there's no evidence of this. A missile attack is a theory, but as far as we can tell only the residents of Khan al Asal have reported surface-to-surface missiles - the people in Otaybah seem to report that airstrikes were a possible delivery system.

One of the leading theories is that there was no chemical attack. Toxic fumes from rocket fuel, or chemicals in containers on the ground that were hit by explosives, or any number of "non-weapon" scenarios present the neatest theory. These incidents do not fit the profile of chemical weapons attacks. However, there remains the problem that the two incidents occurred at the same time. That's an incredible coincidence. If the reports happened many hours apart, or even several days, one could chalk the reports up to panic. In fact, today there are many reports of chemical weapons use, though none of them have been substantiated. Fear breeds panic and rumor. However, these incidents were nearly concurrent - so the panic theory doesn't adequately answer this mystery either.

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