State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki revealed Monday that the U.S. had “indications” that a “toxic industrial chemical” had recently been used on the battlefield in Syria, and that Washington was examining the source of the attack, amid deepening suspicions that the Bashar al-Assad regime recently launched another chemical weapons attack against opposition elements seeking its overthrow.
State’s assessment tracks closely with remarks made over the weekend by top French leadership regarding the launching of another nonconventional attack in Syria:
President Francois Hollande said Sunday that France has “information” but not yet proof that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is still using chemical weapons.
“We have a few elements of information but I do not have the proof,” Hollande told journalists in a radio interview after he was asked about reports that Assad was currently using chemical weapons.
“What I do know is what we have seen from this regime is the horrific methods it is capable of using and the rejection of any political transition,” he told the Europe 1 radio station.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, speaking to the same radio staton, said that there were “indications” of chemical weapon use but that they had “yet to be verified.”
The deployment of weaponized chlorine by Syrian forces would present both diplomatic and political challenges for the Obama administration. The White House has battled for months against criticism that it was diplomatically outmaneuvered last September, when Washington dropped a threat of impending military action in exchange for a commitment by Assad to turn over his chemical weapons arsenal for destruction. The Syrians and their Russian backers took public victory laps as the agreement was hammered out by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the administration was subsequently criticized for among other things becoming de facto invested in keeping the regime stable enough to carry out its obligations.
U.S. officials have in response circulated figures – including ones published this morning – suggesting that Assad may be steadily exporting portions of his arsenal. Chlorine, however, is not a substance that is outright prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Its use in battle is forbidden, but nations are allowed to possess it due to its industrial uses, and it was not listed among the key chemicals that Assad committed to exporting.
Foreign Policy suggested today that evidence of chlorine use against Syrian rebels or civilians will raise concerns over the UNSC agreement:
If Monday’s allegations about a new Assad chemical weapons attack prove accurate, they will cast a dark cloud over the September 2013 agreement that called for Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons to avert American military strikes designed to punish him for a massive chemical weapons attack in the city of Ghouta in August that killed hundreds of Syrians.
The regime has sought to blame rebel groups for the attack, a claim that analysts have dismissed inasmuch as video evidence indicates that the chlorine-filled shells were dropped from helicopters, and rebel groups do not possess helicopters.
[Photo: Rendon Wes / YouTube]