Syria increases use of chemical weapons on rebels

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Syria’s use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on rebels within their capital of Damascus has been reported by a French journalist and photographer for Le Monde, according to sources.

Jean-Philippe Remy and photographer Laurent van der Stockt, embedded with anti-government rebel forces,  witnessed a series of chemical attacks.

“No odour, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas,” wrote Mr Remy. He was speaking from the front line in the suburb of Jobar.

“And then the symptoms appear. The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate.”

Mr van der Stockt, the photographer,  was beside the rebel fighters when they were targeted by the gas. The effects of the gas left him suffering from blurred vision and respiratory difficulties for four days.

Reportedly, the chemical attacks began on April 11, near Abbasid Square. It is one of the key gateways to Damascus.  Where government tanks were stationed, close to a meat market, stronger chemicals were used.

According to Abu Atal, one of the fighters in Jobar,  the rebels were initially confused by a chemical attack on April 13, and did not desert their positions, but remained still. They wheezed for breath and their pupils constricted, and they were “terrorized and trying to calm themselves through prayer.”

Another person that verified that chemical weapons were being used by the Assad regime was General Abu Mohammad Al-Kurdi, commander of the Free Syrian Army’s first division.

He said that his men saw government soldiers leave their positions just before other men “wearing chemical protection suits” surged forward and set “little bombs, like mines” on the ground that began giving off a chemical product.

Mr. Remy of Le Monde reported “If Syrian army forces could dare to use chemical weapons in their own capital without setting off a serious international reaction, would that not be an invitation to pursue the experiment a bit further?”

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, stated that the accounts needed to be verified but they presented “increasingly strong evidence” of chemical attack by President Bashar Assad.

The account of the embedded reporter and journalist, and of the doctors and other people they spoke to who confirmed their conclsusions, is further evidence of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons despite their vocal protestations to the contrary.

Carla Del Ponte, a member of a UN inquiry commission looking at alleged war crimes in Syria, said that the commission  had gathered testimony from casualties and medical staff which indicated that rebel forces had used the banned nerve agent sarin. However, Western governments have stated that they had no such evidence.

March 2011 saw the beginnings of Syria’s revolt against the Assad government. It was inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere and began with peaceful protests. Assad’s violent response to the organized protests eventually led to an armed insurgency. More than 70,000 people since the revolt began.

According to a report by Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast, Syria’s rebel leaders secretly met with John McCain. They told him about the “alleged chemical weapons attacks from the Assad regime.” The rebel leaders “requested the U.S. government supply them with heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and air strikes against the regime.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are meeting in Paris to discuss details which could lead to  Syrian peace talks at an international conference in Geneva next month.

In principle, the Assad regime has said it is willing to attend the talks, while Syria’s fractured political opposition is still holding internal discussions about it. The Syrian government forces, some sources state, want to head into any such planned peace conference in a strong position. That might explain why they have reportedly increased their use of chemical weapons against the rebel forces.

Written by: Douglas Cobb