International American Council

International American Council
Middle East and North Africa

Syrian rebels may be guilty of using sarin gas against government forces

Rumors have been circling for months about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the country’s rebels, whom he has battled for the past two years. However, recent allegations by the Russian ambassador to the United Nations have surfaced, claiming that the rebels’ hands are not entirely clean in terms of chemical warfare.

Russian U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin stated in a news conference that Russian forensic experts have been permitted to visit Khan al-Assal, a northern Syrian area just outside of Aleppo where 26 were killed and 86 injured in a sarin gas attack. According to Churkin, the sarin found at the site was crudely manufactured and attached to a crude projectile with a crude explosive charge, none of which match the capabilities of the Syrian military.

However, the Syrian anti-government activist community has vehemently denied these claims. The main umbrella opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, deemed the Russian allegations “a desperate attempt by Russia to deceive the world and justify Assad’s crimes.”

Previous analyses of sarin gas levels in attack victims by French, Turkish, British, and American scientists have indicated that the Assad regime has been deploying sarin against rebels and innocent civilian bystanders alike, and not the other way around.

Russia is known to have supplied weapons to the Syrian central government in the past, including Scud missiles, which were believed to hold sarin gas in at least a few attacks. Although Russia has halted a large recent deal selling the Syrian government S-300 antiaircraft missiles, the full extent to which Russia is still militarily supporting Assad is unknown, although the Syrian National Coalition statement has claimed that “The Syrian people consider Russia (to be) Assad’s partner in the murder of innocent Syrian civilians.”

Even if its military role in Syria is currently hazy, Russia is certainly still supporting the Assad regime diplomatically, one of the few nation-states to do so. For this reason, Syrian rebels have argued today that these recent accusations are merely a diplomatic gambit to weaken international support for the opposition, or to drum up waning international support for Assad. 

Many rebels indicate that, with the dire struggles the groups have been facing, it is unlikely that they would, or even could, divert energy and resources to obtaining sarin gas. Omar Hamzeh, spokesman for the Revolutionary Command Council, said that the Free Syrian Army “doesn’t have enough ammunition for its light weapons and has to retreat from battles and areas it used to control… and suddenly it appears to have chemical weapons?” 

Nevertheless, the fact that these accusations have now been lobbed by both sides, and have been noted by several international sources, means that the U.N. is now under greater pressure than ever to get to the bottom of the issue and bring peace to Syria. The Assad regime has permitted Ake Sellstrom, the head of the U.N.’s fact-finding mission on chemical weapons in Syria, to go to Damascus for foreign minister-level talks, and Sellstrom is expected to meet with Ban Ki-moon to discuss the matter later today. 

By Laura Gates

Source: New York Times, USA Today, CBS News

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