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Syria Today: The Debate Over Chemical Weapons (Continued)

Dead animals in Khan Assal in Aleppo Province after an alleged chemical weapons attack last month (Photo: George Ourfalian/Reuters)

See also Syria Feature: The Lesson of the Destruction of the Ummayad Mosque
Middle East Today: Killing Off an "Independent" Egyptian News Site
Saturday's Syria Today: A Chemical Weapons "Game-Changer"?

1515 GMT: Insurgent Leader on Chemical Weapons, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Prospect of Victory

In an interview, General Salem Idriss, the head of the insurgent Joiot Military Command, has claimed that regime forces used "the kind of chemical weapons" that are "not so very well known" in the cities of Aleppo, Raqqa, and Homs --- thus indicating that the insurgents have not been able to identify the nature of the chemicals allegedly used.

In the town of Khan al-Assal, allegedly attacked last month, Idriss said that the Syrian military had employed "some kinds of gases" and "phosphorus bombs" against civilians.

Idriss said the importance of the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra --- which has been elevated by much of the media because of the exaggerated claim that it is linked to Al Qa'eada --- has been exaggerated: "The fighters in Jabhat al-Nusra are not more than 5,000 in all the country. Compare 5,000 to that, they [have] very few fighters in Syria."

The commander added, "We don't coordinate with them, we don't have any plans to work with them in the future. They are a special group, and this group is not working under our command."

Idriss claimed, "I]f we have enough weapons and ammunition we can put an end to the fight in Syria, we can fall the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In not more than two months. We can do that."

0925 GMT: Oil Watch

Indian oil companies have said they are pulling out of operations in northern Syria following the capture of oilfields by insurgents.

An Indian consortium held 33.33% to 37.5% interest in four production_sharing contracts covering 36 production fields, operated by Syria's Al Furat Petroleum Company.

0745 GMT: Hezbollah in Syria

A Reuters article from northern Lebanon points to the involvement --- and casualties --- of the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict:

On Wednesday afternoon, machine gun fire rang out through Baalbek's narrow streets, signaling the arrival of another dead Hezbollah fighter from Syria, 12 km (7 miles) to the east.

Around 30 of his comrades quickly aligned in the street and straightened their green berets, readying themselves to carry the corpse on their shoulders.

"We have one or two of these funerals every day in Baalbek," said a young electronics shopkeeper, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue.

A Hezbollah policeman in a polyester blue shirt told Reuters not to film the public funeral. "There are five or six Hezbollah martyrs every day from northern Lebanon," he said quietly, ushering the car away.

0635 GMT: Regime Attacks in Aleppo

Human Rights Watch has put out another report charging that the regime with numerous civilian deaths in Aleppo city from air and missile attacks "without damaging any apparent opposition military targets".

On seven-day mission to Aleppo, Human Rights Watch researchers documented five attacks between 18 March and 7 April in which at least 84 civilians, including 36 children. The organisation "visited the site of each attack, interviewed witnesses, and, where possible, examined the remnants of the munitions used".

0605 GMT: Casualties

The Local Coordination Committees claim 152 people were killed on Saturday, including 60 in Damascus and its suburbs, 21 in Daraa Province, and 20 in Aleppo Province.

The Violations Documentation Center puts the confirmed death toll at 58,408 since the conflict begin in March 2011, an increase of 125 from yesterday.

Of those killed, 45,043 were civilians, a rise of 81 from yesterday.

0535 GMT: Chemical Weapons

Heavy fighting continued in parts of Aleppo and around Damascus on Saturday, but the headlines continued to be dominated by the possibility of chemical weapons attacks by the regime last month.

As we noted on Friday, that discussion --- important not only for establishing what happened in areas like al-Otaybah near in the capital and in Khan Assal in Aleppo Province, where 26 people died, but also for its implications for foreign support of the insurgency to stop the supposed threat --- has split EA staff.

James Miller takes the line that the regime has attacked with chemical weapons, working with a strategic assessment by Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War:

I am confident that two separate incidents, reported by independent groups, at the exact same time, cannot be a coincidence. There are also other incidences which do appear to similarly line up with the regime's goals.

Perhaps Holliday says it best. Perhaps the "wily Assad" has outfoxed Obama by using small-scale chemical attacks to terrorize while still not giving the Obama administration the evidence it needs, all the while blocking a UN investigation and crying victim at the same time.

Another EA analyst of Syria is not so certain:

Holliday makes major assumptions. He has no idea whether this is Assad's strategy. He has no idea if chemical weapons were used --- or if they were used, what control Assad himself has over the use.

The situation is more fluid and chaotic than portrayed here.

And Scott Lucas is still holding to his argument that, whether or not we ever know the "truth", it is the politics that matters here:

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.

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