Possible Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

April 11, 2014

There are reports of a possible chemical weapons attack in at least one area of Syria, but possibly more. Below we will be analyzing the information as it comes in.

2138 GMT: Here is what we know so far:

Earlier today there were reports of a chemical weapons attack in Harasta, an area near Damascus that has been embattled for the past year. According to a leading opposition group that documents casualties, five people were killed by “toxic gases.” Videos claim to show victims of the attack, but what they are suffering from is inconclusive based just on the videos we’ve analyzed.

To the north, near the city of Hama, the town of Kafr Zita was heavily bombed from Assad air forces. Late in the day a “barrel bomb” filled fell from the sky, creating a huge explosion and releasing a yellow gas. Soon afterwards, the town erupted into a panic as residents reported that they were suffering from respiratory effects after having inhaled the gas.

We do not yet have enough information to conclude whether either one of these events was a chemical weapons attack, but out of all of the recent reports of chemical weapons use, these are perhaps the most worthy of further investigation.

But here is what else we know. Russia, in a deal with the international community brokered between Moscow and Washington, was supposed to play a leading role in the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons. We also know that the leaders of the international community have shown little interest in stopping Syria’s civil war, whether 2000 people were killed with chemical weapons or whether 200,000 were killed by other means. Whether chemical weapons were used today in Syria or not, that fact is unlikely to change.

2055 GMT: As we’ve been reporting, there are unconfirmed reports of another chemical weapons attack earlier today in Harasta, Damascus. 5 people reportedly died in that attack. Below we post two videos, though they aren’t terribly helpful. They reportedly show victims of the chemical weapons attack. Someone helps verify the date by showing their cell phone, but the victims don’t appear to have any clearly identifiable symptoms that could help confirm that this was a chemical attack.

2045 GMT: Now it’s time for perspective. The highest estimates for the confirmed chemical weapon attack in East Ghouta on August 21st is about 1800, with most estimates running between 1200 and 1600. Today, there are reports of 5 dead in Harasta, and possibly several more in Kafr Zita, due to a chemical weapons attack.

But according to the VDC, a group working to document every death in Syria, 2540 people have been killed in the last month across Syria. And keep in mind, these are just the deaths that the VDC has been able to confirm. The reality is that if 2540 are confirmed to have been killed, the real number is much much higher. Below we have posted videos of what are clearly civilians being bombed by what appear to be helicopters, helicopters owned by their own government. Does it really matter what killed them if we know who killed them?

2034 GMT: A potentially very important video. This claims to have been taken this evening in Kafr Zita, and it is uploaded by a channel that has posted videos nearly exclusively from Kafr Zita. It claims to show a helicopter dropping a barrel bomb filled with the chemical weapons.

A quick analysis – there is a clear editing mark right before the explosion, though there does note appear to be any edits between the camera panning down from the helicopter and towards the horizon (the video needs a more careful and technical analysis at a later date). This could prove that the helicopter did drop a barrel bomb on that location at one point, and it’s possible that the cameraman stopped the recording before he saw the impact, maybe because he gave up on it, but the edit may severely damage the video as a piece of evidence.

The cloud from the explosion does look more yellow than normal, however.

2024 GMT: Though it has escaped widespread attention in the wider media, there have been many reports of chemical weapons attacks in recent weeks, mostly focused around Damascus. Outside observers have had little evidence to go analyze these claims, as there have been relatively few victims in each one. However, the Israeli Defense Force has made its own claims that it has evidence of Assad using chemical weapons against civilians. The Guardian reports:

A senior Israeli defence official said earlier this week that new chemical attacks had taken place in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus. The claim supported complaints by rebel groups in Harasta that at least three people had been killed in late March, with several dozen more taken ill, after shells landing near them discharged noxious fumes.

Israel concluded the effects were not caused by sarin or mustard gas, but could have come from an industrial-strength substance, such as a pesticide. The UK said it was also investigating the claims.

On Friday the Syrian opposition leadership repeated its demand for the claims be examined. But as a non-state body it has no sway over the OPCW, which has so far overseen the surrender of 53% of Syria’s arsenal.

Monzer Akbik, a senior opposition official, said: “The regime repeatedly uses chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, so many can testify to this. And with the regime way behind on [UN security council] resolution 2118 on chemical weapons removal, and constantly violating humanitarian resolution 2139 with its barrel bombs and starvation campaigns, it is time for the international community to start taking seriously their responsibility to protect Syrian civilians.”

Just today, the Local Coordination Committees reported that five people were killed in Harasta and several more were injured in Harasta. We’ll analyze that evidence if we can find it.

2013 GMT: Before the chemical weapons attack was reported, the town of Kafr Zita was already under attack. Note from the lighting conditions that this was taken earlier than the videos of the reported chemical attack, and residents were already complaining of being hit by barrel bombs:

The video is posted by the Shaam News Network, which has proven to be very reliable, though the video is still unconfirmed.

Are there alternate explanations for the chemical weapons attack? Yes. Incendiary weapons are often used in Syria, and could have created toxic smoke. Similarly, explosives could have hit chemicals that were stored on the ground, creating a similar effect. What we do know, however, is that unlike many of these similar events which are reported, there appear to be many more victims than we have seen in analogous events which have taken place in recent weeks.

2008 GMT: A potentially very important video, reportedly taken today in Kafr Zita:

1955 GMT: Here is what we know. According to many sources, many of them credible, a chemical weapons attack has been launched today in Kafr Zita, approximately 40-45 kilometers north and west of Hama city (map). That it is a chemical weapons attack is unclear. That there is an unusual event is clear.

Our managing editor has been following the story, and has been working with a Reddit forum, where the moderators have collected videos of the reported attack. The first video is very important because it reportedly shows one of the bombs that delivered the gas. Note the yellow smoke:

If you note, there are smaller flashes after the initial explosion. This could be evidence that a cluster bomb was used, and these are the bomblets exploding.

Two videos reportedly show the chaotic scene inside a field hospital in Hama. Children appear to be among the affected:

Again, there are more videos on the Reddit forum which we may discuss once we have time to analyze them.

According to sources, after the reported “toxic gases” were released, the area was heavily shelled with barrel bombs. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a leading and fairly reliable opposition activist group, also reports the barrel bombs. According to the LCC, at least one child was killed by the “toxic gases.