Stephen Starr
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on : Wednesday, 11 Sep, 2013
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War of Words

Conflicting reports inside Syria about chemical weapons do not bode well for its future

BACKGAMMON blog: A board game played in smoky cafes from Beirut to Baghdad. Backgammon’s earliest ancestor is five thousand years old and was unearthed in southern Iraq. Modern-day descendants teach players survival skills beyond the game: although luck is involved, strategy wins out in the long run. ‘Backgammon’ covers the state of play in the countries spanning the Fertile Crescent: Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq.

A United Nations (UN) arms expert collects samples on August 29, 2013, as they inspect the site where rockets had fallen in Damascus' eastern Ghouta suburb during an investigation into a suspected chemical weapons strike near the capital. (Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images)

A United Nations (UN) arms expert collects samples on August 29, 2013, as they inspect the site where rockets had fallen in Damascus’ eastern Ghouta suburb during an investigation into a suspected chemical weapons strike near the capital. (Ammar al-Arbini/AFP/Getty Images)

A US-led military intervention in Syria would be inextricably founded in the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces early on August 21. Both the White House and French government are convinced Bashar Al-Assad’s forces are responsible for the attack though the former seems unwilling to release its information into the public domain. For everyone else, there is an essential difficulty in gathering information about what took place that night.

Civilians living in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta are almost entirely sympathetic to the opposition’s cause. Civilians in other parts of the city are too far from the stricken areas to provide much useful information on what happened. The shelling of rebel-held Damascus suburbs has become so normal for residents of the city centre that the rockets launched on the Eastern Ghouta region and on Modamiyeh in the early hours of August 21 were, for them, nothing out of the ordinary.

Remarkably, the Syrian government has not made public plans to initiate its own investigation, and opposition accounts often contradict. According to a preliminary report carried out by the opposition Syrian National Coalition, the first chemical-armed rockets were launched by forces from the Syrian military’s 155 Brigade north of Damascus towards Eastern Ghouta shortly after 2.30 am, and on Modamiyeh southwest of Damascus several hours later from the same position.

But testimonies from activists and residents on the ground when the attacks took place differ from the National Coalition’s report. Mohammed Saeed of the Local Coordinating Committees—a grassroots activist network—said six rockets struck Douma at 3 am on August 21. He believes over 1,000 people died in the attack on the town, located five kilometers northeast of Zamalka, the perceived central target of the attack on Eastern Ghouta. He said the rockets originated from Mount Qassiun.

Susan Ahmad, the spokesperson for the Syrian Coordination Committees in Damascus Countryside was in Al-Tell—a town close to the 155 Brigade’s bases—said the rockets that struck Eastern Ghouta that night originated from the army ‘Panorama’ area in central Damascus and from the Qassiun post that overlooks the city to the south and Ghouta to the east.

Ms Ahmed believes the Syrian military had been storing sarin gas at the Mezzah military airport southwest of Damascus before transporting and launching it from the above mentioned military posts. However, the National Coalition report said a “regime security source” stated the weapons were launched “from only one source”—a military compound in the Qalamoun Mountains a dozen kilometres north of the capital.

The Modamiyeh attack

Activists in Modamiyeh say the chemical attack started on the town an hour after Eastern Ghouta was struck. Reached by Skype hours after the attack, activist Abu Ahmed said the rockets fired that night sounded different from the conventional shells that have been landing on the town for the past several months.

He believes the rockets in question were fired from the Forth Division’s base at the nearby Mezzah military airport—not from the Qalamoun Mountains as the National Coalition reports. “We are only four kilometres from Umayween Square [where the government’s TV and radio and military intelligence elements are headquartered],” he said. “We took the injured and the dead to the hospital and washed them with water and soap.”

He said there were around 200 people alive the day after the attack that were unable to speak or open their eyes. A military operation on the town throughout Wednesday and Thursday stopped locals from returning to the site of the alleged chemical attacks in Modamiyeh.

Civilians in government-controlled areas of Damascus who have spoken to The Majalla are unsure about where responsibility lies. Sari, who has lived in the city since before the revolt broke out thirty months ago, said, “It is stupid to say the army used chemical weapons on the first day the UN investigators came to Syria. Logically, the Syrian army is using all kind of missiles and weapons and have much more fire power that can kill more than chemical weapons… I’m not denying that there was no chemical used in Ghouta, but I don’t think that the army used it, I think the rebels have it, and it was launched by mistake.”

Rama, a business executive living in the city, shares similar sentiments. “I am not saying the regime would not do such a thing, the regime has the potential to use nuclear if [it] intended to, all I’m saying is that the regime wouldn’t do such a thing, especially at that period of time, during the UN investigators’ [visit].”

Analyzing the information

Eliot Higgins, a weapons tracker who runs the Brown Moses Blog, said: “The rockets that appeared in the chemical attack were first seen in Dariya earlier this year, then a similar type rocket came up in the Adra chemical attack on August 15,” Higgins believes the rockets could be modified 120 mm grad rockets that would have a shorter range of seven to eight kilometers because of the modifications made to them. He thinks they are not “something that’s been manufacturing in a garage.”

Though rebel forces rely heavily on DIY weaponry, so too have government forces.“The Syrian government has been dropping barrel bombs for almost a year so using modified rockets such as the ones possibly used in Ghouta is not unprecedented,” said Higgins. “If the opposition is responsible, it’s one of their better made weapons. I’ve tracked every single opposition weapons and I’ve never seen anything like this from them.”

That the Assad regime carried out chemical attacks is still in question today. But there is another message here: Syria’s opposition organs remain uncoordinated, often sending out contradictory intelligence. Granted activists are facing impossible conditions on a daily basis, conflicting messages from the National Coalition—the organization most likely to succeed the Assad regime—tells Syrians that they have little to look forward to if and when Assad is ousted.

Stephen Starr

Stephen Starr

Stephen Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising. Now based in Turkey, he lived in Syria for five years until 2012.

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