After several days of dilly-dallying and international pressure, the Syrian government has agreed to permit a team of United Nations experts to visit rebel-held suburbs of Damascus – scene of an apparent chemical attack last week. One immediate consequence has been to overshadow all previous chemical attacks which the UN inspectors had gone there to investigate. The debate in the western media and official circles has turned to the latest atrocity – "a chemical attack" carried out by Assad forces. It is odd that politicians in London and Paris should be so certain before independent information was available, and the UN team was able to visit the area.
An intense propaganda battle is under way alongside Syria's murderous war. For several days, Assad's government was resistant to allowing UN inspectors into the area. The opposition was eager to guarantee them safe passage through parts it controls. Then the French charity Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it had reports that a neurotoxic agent was apparently used in the attack.
More than 3,500 patients had symptoms of gas poisoning, and about 350 victims had died in three hospitals that the charity supports in Damascus. The MSF director Bart Janssens was cautious in saying that he "can neither scientifically confirm the cause … nor establish who is responsible". But his comments probably forced the Syrian government to respond. Damascus claimed that its troops had entered "the tunnels of the terrorists" and discovered "chemical agents". Government forces were supposed to have been busy rescuing "people who were suffocating".
Tragedy and propaganda often are close companions in war. More reasonable voices have argued that, given the circumstances, the "burden of proof" lies with President Assad. His government had an obligation, legal and moral, to let the UN experts travel to the site, only a short drive from the centre of Damascus. Of course, the possibility of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group being responsible could not be ruled out. In a sign that some elements in the Syrian opposition had chemical agents, Turkish police were reported to have found sarin gas with members of al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda associate fighting in Syria, and had made a number of arrests last May.
speculation that someone close to Bashar al-Assad may be the mastermind behind the apparent attack. This is what the Syrian opposition would like to see, for nothing less would likely persuade President Obama to order a direct military intervention.
The Independent's Middle East specialist Patrick Cockburn is known for his sceptical reporting about "chemical attacks" of the past. Cockburn wrote that "it is difficult to think of any action by the Damascus government more self-destructive than the Syrian army launching a massive chemical-weapons attack on rebel-held districts in its own capital. Yet the evidence is piling up that this is exactly what happened… and that the Syrian army fired rockets or shells containing poison gas which killed hundreds of people in the east of the city". The opposition may be capable of manufacturing evidence of government atrocities, according to Cockburn, but it is highly unlikely it could do so on such a large scale as this.
An intriguing but opposite analysis came from Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the US Army's Chemical Corps, now a leading private consultant. Kaszeta argued that a number of vital details were missing from the video footage so far. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (paywall), Kaszeta said, "None of the people treating casualties and photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear," and "despite that, none of them seem to be harmed".