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Syria Today: The Debate Over Chemical Weapons

2210 GMT: Major Policy Shift Signaled By the US? Many analysts are writing about military intervention in Syria. Some are opposed, some are in favor, many are still on the fence. One article in particular was promoted heavily on Twitter: The Case for Intervening in Syria, published by The Atlantic. What caught our eye, however, is that one of the Twitter accounts pushing the report belongs to the US State Deptartment’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations:

2148 GMT: Rebels Redress Assad Advance in Damascus. At the start of my day, there was news that the Syrian regime was stacking tanks on the outskirts of Jobar, the east-central district of Damascus that is the front lines of the fight for the capital in the east. The area was being heavily shelled and bombed by artillery, rockets, and aircraft, softening up the area for the ground assault.

It's unclear whether the offensive was ultimately successful, but it does not appear that is was. Furthermore, the rebels appear to have inflicted heavy losses on the regime, particularly in the form of tanks.

One contact forwarded to us two video, but we have also found them through other sources. They show a fierce fight that has cost the regime armored vehicles, matching witness reports:

The LCC has also posted video of some of the battle.

There was also intense fighting in Darayya, and in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.

The real rumor of the day, however, is that the rebels may have counterattacked in Otaybah, a town that they lost just yesterday. There is not yet reliable information yet, so we'll be watching this closely tomorrow.

1959 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, 116 people have been killed so far today nationwide:

29 martyrs were reported Damascus and its Suburbs; 19 in Idlib; 15 in Daraa; 12 in Hama; 11 in Hasakeh; 11 in Deir Ezzor; 11 in Aleppo; and 8 in Homs.

See our note about the casualty figures posted by the LCC.

1918 GMT: Friday of Majority Protection. The Local Coordination Committees have published a statement, clarifying the meaning of today's protest theme:

During Friday of « Majority Protection », Syrians from most of Syrian cities and villages went out on demonstrations sending messages to the world that protecting minorities doesn’t mean exterminating majority, who’s exposed to most of the violations practiced by the regime against its people.

That statement also included a picture gallery of a protest movement we've seen all across Syria today. Protesters have written on posters, used spray paint on walls, and have chanted a simple slogan: "Finally, non-lethal weapons are here. We feel victorious. Thank you, 'Friends of Syria.'" The statement is sarcastic. As one activist explained, they can find posters and spraypaint to relay how many are killed, but they cannot stop the killing:

1906 GMT: Obama Speaks from the Oval Office. President Obama made statements addressing the claim that Assad has used chemical weapons. He made the statement from the Oval Office, a symbol of the importance of the statement:

"Horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed, to use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law," Obama told reporters at the White House.

"That is going to be a game changer. We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately. But I think all of us ... recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations," he said.

1840 GMT: Rebel Advance in Daraa. Multiple opposition sources are also reporting that the headquarters of the regime's 62nd Special Forces Company has fallen to the rebels. The base, somewhere near the Naseeb border crossing (the border crossing on the map map) is on the border with Jordan. An activist forwards us a Youtube page that has posted many videos reportedly showing the aftermath of the battle. This video shows Islamist fighters driving towards the destroyed outposts and the other rebels who have fought in the battle.

The base is relatively small and remote. What is important, however, is that the rebels have been striking these border outposts, opening up potential supply lines with Jordan. The most powerful foreign weapons have made it to the rebels from this border, and Syrian insurgents have crossed the border to receive training in Jordan.

1811 GMT: The Battle for Qusayr. South of Homs, battles continue to rage between Assad forces, assisted by Hezbollah fighters, and Syrian rebels. Several areas have traded hands. Most recently, however, it appears that the rebels have made gains in the village of Kamam, between Homs and Al Qusayr (map):

Several other sources said that the regime had withdrawn from the town after a day and a half of fighting. However, video showed heavy fighting in the village at nightfall, and many others showed the town under intense bombardment.

1755 GMT: Varying Degrees of Confidence. At a press conference, White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated that there is not enough confidence that Assad used chemical weapons to act:

"I'm not going to set a timeline, because the facts need to be what drives this investigation, not a deadline," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.

"We are continuing to work to build on the assessments made by the intelligence community, that the degrees of confidence here are varying, that this is not an airtight case," he said.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron used strong language, but still left plenty of room for doubt:

"It is limited evidence but there is growing evidence that we have seen too of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime," Cameron told the BBC.

"It is extremely serious: this is a war crime ... We need to go on gathering this evidence and also to send a very clear warning to the Syrian regime about these appalling actions," he said.

International pressure is slowly increasing, but this new development is hardly the trigger for immediate action.

1604 GMT: Russia and Assad's Chemical Weapons. Russia has warned that a serious investigation is needed before anyone jumps to conclusions about chemical weapons use in Syria:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that any reports of the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict must be carefully investigated to avoid the repetition of the “Iraqi scenario” in which unconfirmed suspicions that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction were enough for foreign invasion.

The Syrian government has blocked this investigation. Russia Today blames the United Nations for the lack of investigation, however:

So far the expert team is still awaiting its marching orders, after UN chief Ban Ki-moon promised the probe in late March, following an official request by the Syrian authorities to appoint an independent mission to investigate the alleged chemical attack that claimed lives of at least 25 people on March 19.

Although following the Syrian plea, the United Nations said the team would not include experts from Russia and China to ensure it wasn’t biased. Russian EU envoy Vitaly Churkin criticized “this kind of logic” saying in that case he “would recommend excluding all NATO countries too.”

Following this development, in early April, Syria refused to let the UN proposed team enter Syria as it - contrary to the Syrian request - was planning to deploy “throughout Syrian territory” and not at particular locations of alleged attacks. “Syria cannot accept such manoeuvres on the part of the UN secretariat general, bearing in mind the negative role that it played in Iraq and which cleared the way for the American invasion,” a Syrian foreign ministry official explained at the time.

The United Nations says that without an unimpeded investigation, no hard evidence can conclude whether chemical weapons were used and by what party.

This issue puts Russia in an awkward position. If the international community concludes that chemical weapons were used in Syria, and they have substantive proof, blocking resolutions against Syria will greatly endanger Russia's standing in the international community. On the other hand, it has gone to bat for the Assad regime, and cannot afford to be backed into a corner.

The reality, however, is that Syria won't be letting the UN team in any time soon, and without an investigation the UN will likely refuse to act.

1509 GMT: Rebels Attack Assad Another Airbase. The Abu ad Duhur airbase, south of Aleppo and northeast of Hama (map), has been attacked before by Syrian rebels. The rebels were able to destroy a significant amount of helicopters and tanks in the assault. However, the rebels did not try to hold the airbase, and there are new Assad reinforcements in the base. Those reinforcements, however, have been subjected to a sudden surprise attack today. Several opposition sources are reporting a renewed attack on the base, but the boldest claims suggest that the rebels have already broken through the main gate. Several videos from 3 days ago show rebel forces harassing the base (including the one below), but we've not seen any video evidence to corroborate today's claims. That's not unsurprising, as the base is fairly remote. It does mean, however, that there may be a long wait before we can definitively say what has happened at the base:

Is this significant? Assad's airbases are crucial to delivering supplies and striking at the rebels. They are also key sources for rebel ammunition and weapons. The loss of this base would be a blow to the regime, but the loss of a significant amount of aircraft in the process would matter even more.

Syrian rebels have even found a use for weapons that have formerly been useless to them. Eliot Higgins has analyzed videos that suggest that some rebels have transformed air-to-air missiles into surface-to-surface missiles. These weapons don't have a large enough payload to make a huge difference, but the rebels may be able to do this with hundreds of rockets, which will have a collective impact.

1423 GMT: Today's Message from Kafranbel. The town of Kafranbel may be the opposition's most famous faces. Last week, they gained international attention when they sent a message of condolence to the victims of the Boston marathon bombing (a message we deeply appreciated). In reality, however, their English messages have often caught headlines for their wit, defiance, and persistence. Their banners may get too much attention specifically because they are in English, but they are almost always worth a mention. Below is today's message, but if you are not familiar with the town (and even if you are) there is a whole website dedicated to their messages, and it is worth spending lots of time viewing:

1414 GMT: Death Toll Rises. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria report that 64 people have been killed so far today:

13 martyrs were reported in Idlib; 12 in Damascus and its Suburbs; 11 in Hasakeh; 10 in Aleppo; 8 in Deir Ezzor; 4 in Homs; 3 in Hama; and 3 in Daraa.

First, our note about the LCC and their casualty figures:

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) is an activist network operating both inside and outside of Syria. They claim to use stringent verification processes to ensure that a member of the LCC can vouch for any information posted either on their Facebook page or their website. The LCC also cooperates with an independent organization to populate database of those killed in the Syrian conflict, which can be seen at the website for the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria.

The LCC's casualty figures are often a mix of insurgents and civilians, and never include regime casualties. Syrian State Media has stopped reporting regime casualty figures.

Also see our description of the Local Coordination Committees and how we utilize their reports in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The Guardian reports that there has been an intensification of the regime's attacks against eastern Damascus, as airstrikes, rockets, artillery and tanks rock the eastern districts:

The assault was focused on Jobar, just inside central Damascus.

One resident reported intense bombardment of several rebel-held districts, beginning at 7am local time. "It was not the usual regime shelling, it sounded like rockets," said the resident.

Another resident said 18 tanks had gathered in the capital's Abbasid Square, which has come to mark off army-held lines from the nearby rebel-controlled eastern areas of Jobar and Qaboun.

Rami Abdel Rahmen of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of contacts on the ground in Syria, said heavy airstrikes had hit both districts.

This follows weeks of a renewed offensive to dislodge the Syrian rebels. Those efforts have had some successes, but after more than two weeks the regime has only pushed the rebels out of a single town, Otaybah, far to the east in the rural countryside. Today there have not been any confirmed reports that the regime has pressed any further than Otaybah.

1354 GMT: Friday Protests. Today is day 773 of the Syrian uprising. Every Friday since day 1 there have been widespread anti-Assad protesters. Syrian citizens attend mosque on the Islamic day of prayer, then take to the streets to protest. Some of them never make it to the mosque, as they are stopped by pro-Assad forces. Some never make it home. On some Fridays, mosques have been attacked by pro-Assad elements, or people have been arrested or killed protesting just outside. Standing up to the Assad regime, either by force or by peaceful protest, is now and has always been a dangerous act of defiance.

Each protest also has a theme, voted on by Syrian activists on a Facebook page. Today's protest roughly translates to "Friday demonstrations to protect the majority." It has many layers of meaning. First, it is a reminder that the majority of Syrians, in fact the vast majority, oppose Assad's rule (even if they do not necessarily support the rebellion). Second, it is a reference to the media coverage. When Syria's minorities are attacked by anyone, it grabs international headlines. In the past, even unconfirmed (and later debunked) persecution of minorities drives international outrage. Meanwhile, to the majority of Syrians who deal with death, destruction, and persecution every day, these incidents breed frustration.

Sectarianism is in the news this week. Two of Aleppo's Christian bishops have been kidnapped by parties still unknown. Hezbollah has brought the country closer to an all-out sectarian conflict, and there are concerns that things are only getting worse. The mainstream opposition groups, however, have denounced the kidnapping of the bishops, and have rejected calls for Jihad against Hezbollah or supporters for Assad. More than anything, though, this week was just another deadly chapter, like many others, of Syria's uprising. Today's theme references that.

Below is a playlist containing just a few of today's protests, from Kafranbel to Aleppo, Damascus to Hama. We will continue to update it throughout the day. If you really want to understand the streets of Syria, remember that each of these protesters is taking their lives into their hands, and some of them won't live to protest next Friday:

1256 GMT: Regime Denies it Even Possesses Chemical Weapons. Syria has chemical weapons. This fact has been well established by intelligence groups over the course of many years. Unlike the claimed chemical weapons held by Saddam Hussein, above ground installations have been used by the Assad regime to both create and store chemical weapons stockpiles. The Syrian government has made little or no attempt to hide their development of chemical weapons, using them as a deterrent to would-be enemies. It is likely that the openness with which Assad has created and stored these weapons is the key reason why the United States and others have not had the concerns about Syria that they had about Iraq. Also, the Syrian government has not denied possessing chemical weapons.

Until today. With a growing chorus of world leaders saying that Assad has crossed, or may have crossed, the "red line" by using sarin gas on his own people, the Assad regime has responded. According to Syria's Information Minister, not only has the regime never used chemical weapons, it does not possess chemical weapons:

“This has been done by organizations, including al-Qaeda, which threatened to use chemical weapons against Syria. They have carried out their threat near Aleppo. There were victims,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in Moscow.

“The Syrian army does not have chemical weapons,” Interfax news agency quoted Zoubi as saying.

There needs to be a lot of debate about what to do about Syria, and mysteries remain about whether or not the regime has used chemical weapons. But anyone trying to cloud the issue by denying that Syria does not have weapons, harkening the Iraq WMD fiasco, is simply trying to cloud the issue. There is no debate. It's interesting that this denial from the regime is coming at a moment when it is externally threatened, because In fact, at a different point in time when Assad was threatened, the regime admitted that it did possess chemical weapons. In July 2012, the Syrian government admitted that it had chemical weapons, that they were secure, and that they would only be used if they were threatened by an external invasion:

During a televised news conference Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi stressed that the weapons are secure and would only be used in the case of an external attack.

"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria," he said. "All of these types of weapons are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces and will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression."

In short, many questions remain about Syria, but this is not one of them.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started this morning.

1038 GMT: Chemical Weapons. Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has backed the assessment made by US intelligence agencies that there was “growing evidence” of the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces.

Cameron agreed with Obama’s assertion that, if proven to be true, the use of chemical weapons will be a “red line” for the international community.

The Prime Minister distanced himself from direct military intervention, adding "What we need to do, and we're doing some of this already, is shape that opposition, work with them, train them, mentor them, help them so we put the pressure on the regime and so we can bring this to an end.”

0520 GMT: Casualties

The Local Coordination Committees claim 124 people were killed on Thursday, including 51 in Damascus and its suburbs and 21 in Homs Province.

The Violations Documentation Center sets out a toll of 58.187 since the conflict begin in March 2011, an increase of 229 on Thursday's toll.

More than two-thirds of the new casualties are listed as "non-civilian".

Of those killed, 45,896 were civilians, a rise of 73 from yesterday.

0500 GMT: Chemical Weapons

We opened Thursday's coverage with the question of whether the Syrian military has used chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, and we closed it the same way, with a series of unnamed US officials putting out the allegation before it was attributed to National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden: Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria."

The officials said the US assessment, based in part on "physiological samples", points to the possible use of sarin, a man-made nerve agent which can cause convulsions, respiratory failure, and death.

The British Foreign Office also maintained its line:

We have limited but persuasive information from various sources showing chemical weapon use in Syria, including sarin.

This is extremely concerning. Use of chemical weapons is a war crime.

We have briefed our allies, partners and the UN on this information and we are working actively to get more and better information.

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon renewed a call for Syria to let inspectors into the country.

So has the Assad military committed war crimes --- especially given caveats, such as the warning of the US National Security Council official Hayden that the chain of custody of the weapons was "not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions"?

That debate splits analysts on EA. Scott Lucas has argued over the last two days:

While no one has been able to establish if chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict, it is likely that the assertion of regime use will escalate --- not just over the specific issue, but to rationalise increased intervention by outside forces.

James Miller leans more to the confirmation of regime use and, while also seeing the outcome as escalated foreign involvement, has a different perspective on that intervention:

As chemical weapons are the "red line," does anyone in the Obama Administration really believe that the Assad regime will, with this new revelation, have a change of heart? Of course not.

On one hand, both the letter and the leaked message indicate that the US is in possession of what it believes is the smoking gun. On the other hand, the US refuses to act alone, has no interest in involving itself militarily at the moment, and will hide behind the failure of the UN mission to buy time.

But they are also working the other side of the coin. The leaked statement will infuriate the public and begin to build a case for more support for the rebels, or perhaps eventual direct military intervention. This process will be slow, potentially buying enough time so that Obama's real wish --- a negotiated settlement --- can become a reality.

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