Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected the responsibility for a chemical attack on April 11, 2014 in the city of Kfar Zeita (near Damascus), part of a second round of chemical weaponry seen since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011. Assad instead blamed the attack on the rebel, al-Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra, according to a state TV news source.
The attack on April 11 is important for a number of reasons. First, it is rare that both the government and its opposition recognize an attack took place. It is highly unusual both groups agree on anything, especially on what has been described as a chemical attack on a strategic city.
Though U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told ABC the evidence of the attack were “unsubstantiated,” a number of sources confirmed it, including French President Francois Hollande and the opposition Violations Documentation Center (VDC), who oversees human rights in Syria. The recognition of an attack from these combined parties leaves little room to doubt its legitimacy.
Secondly, the attack on Kfar Zeita is meaningful because of a speech given by President Assad two days later. Syria’s leader sat before a group of graduate students and the political science staff of Damascus University, telling them the civil war had reached a “turning point” in the government’s favor.
In recent months, the Lebanese-based Hezbollah has offered to increase aid to Assad’s forces, recapturing key rebel-controlled cities. The result has cut off supply routes to the opposition from Lebanon and effectively secured the northern stretch from Damascus into Homs.
While the state government was quick to blame the rebels for the April 11 attack, some independent media have questioned this possibility. Eliot Higgins, who authors the Brown Moses blog has become the virtual world’s authority on battle descriptions in Syria.
Higgins said that the state media source who reportedly blamed the rebels clearly stated that a chlorine bomb had been dropped from a helicopter. Considering that Kafr Zita has been the focus of pro-government forces for months, it is unlikely that a helicopter flown by the opposition would have gone by unnoticed. Additionally, there is no evidence to support that Jabhat al-Nusra even has a helicopter, while Assad’s forces would have a nearly unlimited amount.
Higgins also pointed out that the state media source specifically said the attack was made through a chlorine bomb. The pro-Assad TV station rejected that the second round of chemical attacks was started by the government. Higgins says though, “One…has to ask how Syrian State TV could [say] chlorine was used without [having] access to the…pro-opposition area.”
Both the United States and France are thought to be assessing the claims. The last and most meaningful aspect of the April 11 attack is the responsibility of the United States. If the Syrian government is found guilty of using chemical weapons against its own people, the discourse for military action from the U.S. is expected to ensue once more.
The Obama administration backtracked its plans to launch airstrikes against Damascus last summer, instead developing a program wherein the Syrian government would forfeit all its chemical weapons to the United Nations. Due to rebel controlled cities on the border of the country, that program is taking longer than expected.
Chlorine itself is not defined as a chemical weapon, as it is a daily household substance. Its use in warfare, however, is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention and use by the Syrian government would violate its agreement with the UN last summer.
The blame of the highly important chemical attack on April 11 rejected by Assad’s forces may begin a second round of discussions in the United States over military intervention in Syria’s civil war.
By Erin P. Friar