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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Confirmation of Nerve Gas Attack in Homs, Syria? (Updated)

The Independent reports that a Syrian general that has defected to the rebel side has indicated that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons. The story indicates:
The head of Syria’s military police defected to the opposition, accusing the Assad regime of systematic “murder” and claiming that reports of chemical weapons being used against rebels in the restive city of Homs were true.

Maj-Gen Abdul-Aziz Jassim al-Shallal became one of the highest ranking Syrian military officers to throw their support behind the rebels, accusing forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of turning their weapons on innocent civilians in the now 22-month-long civil war.

... But it is his claim that chemical weapons were used in Homs during a deadly attack on Christmas Eve that is likely to be of greater interest to the Syrian opposition and their foreign backers.

Reports from Homs had suggested that a type of nerve agent was used by the Syrian forces in the attack, a point that General Shallal appeared to verify yesterday. Al Jazeera reported at the time that at least seven people had died after inhaling a poisonous gas “sprayed by government forces in a rebel-held Homs neighbourhood”.

“We don’t know what this gas is but medics are saying it’s something similar to sarin gas,” Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, told Al Jazeera.

It is not clear that the substance used in Homs was banned by international law, even the though the General yesterday specifically referred to a “chemical weapons” attack. Nonetheless, the use of non-conventional weapons is considered a “red line” by some in the international community who have been reluctant to intervene directly.
Update: The chemical weapons may not have been sarin nerve gas. This article from the Business Insider indicates that it may have been a chemical weapon the Syrians call "Agent 15" that is only toxic if a nerve gas antidote is administered. From the article:
Doctors at SAMS [Syrian American Medical Society] describe a "probable" use of what chemical specialists refer to as "Agent-15," or 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate, or what NATO calls "BZ." They classified their report as "probable" because the higher classification of "confirmed" would require laboratory testing.

From SAMS:
The Gas effects started [a] few seconds after the area was shelled. Right after the shelling, patients described seeing white gas with odor, then they had severe shortness of breath, loss of vision, inability to speak, flushed face, dizziness, paralysis, nausea and vomiting, and increased respiratory secretions. Doctors who treated patients said that patients had pinpoint pupils and bronchospasm. Patients were treated in a field hospital. Gas masks were not available.
The particularly nasty aspect of this chemical weapon is that use of atropine needles, a common countermeasure against nerve agents, is actually a toxic combination and can lead to exacerbation of symptoms, even death.

... the worst known non-lethal reactions to high doses of BZ include stupor, hallucinations and "regressive" phantom behaviors such as plucking at one's hair and disrobing.
Meanwhile, Israel Hayom reports that the U.S. may be stepping up its preparations for intervention in Syria:
The U.S. is gearing up for a possible military intervention in Syria in the event that chemical weapons are used on Syrian citizens or alternately fall into the wrong hands, Strategic Affairs Minister and Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon told Israel Radio on Thursday.

Ya’alon voiced conviction that it was unlikely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's sizable chemical weapons stockpiles would be used against Israel at this time, but said, “The very discussion of the issue, and the U.S.'s need to draw red lines, points to how dangerous Assad really is."

"The U.S. and others have drawn two red lines recently,” Ya'alon said.

“One [was] back in September, for the event that these weapons fall into hostile, irresponsible hands, perhaps Hezbollah, or other groups, possibly al-Qaida. The other red line was drawn approximately four weeks ago on the understanding that Assad was considering and preparing and planning to use chemical weapons on his own people. That is why all the neighboring countries in the region are concerned, including Israel.

“The U.S. is certainly spearheading the battle here, both diplomatically and in preparation for the possibility of intervention. I don't know about deploying forces, but certainly there are different options to prevent this. Therefore, all the interested parties, including Israel, are closely monitoring the situation."

Earlier, in an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday, Ya’alon dismissed reports that Syrian government forces had fired chemical agents at rebels fighting to topple Assad's government.

"As things stand now, we do not have any confirmation or proof that [chemical weapons] have already been used, but we are definitely following events with concern," he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli media reports confirmed Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman to discuss the risk of Syria's chemical weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants.

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