Did Bashar al-Assad Use Chemical Gas To Attack Syrian Citizens Again? It Sure Looks Like It
In the midst of the Syrian government destroying its chemical weapons arsenal (behind schedule) after using poisonous gas on its people in 2013 — which left hundreds dead and injured — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime may be at it again. The U.S. State Department says it has "indications of the use of a toxic industrial chemical" used in Syria this year, and an investigation is underway. Syrian opposition activists allege that chlorine gas was dropped over Kfar Zeita by helicopters between April 11 and 12.
There may have been two additional attacks, although nothing has been confirmed to date, and the rebel forces and the government are accusing each other for the Kfar Zeita attack. French president François Hollande hinted Sunday that he believed al-Assad was still using chemical weapons on Syria's front line: "We have a few elements of information, but I do not have the proof," he said, according to The Telegraph.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says chlorine is not one of the two key chemicals in Syria's chemical stockpile to be destroyed under the Russian-U.S. agreement, and that the U.S. is still trying to piece together all of the information. For some U.S. lawmakers, this is a clear sign that more support needs to be provided to the Syrian rebels to fight back. According to Reuters, Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain released the following statement:
The Assad regime continues to carry out war crimes in its slaughter of innocent men, women, and children. Its breach of the chemical weapons agreement should surprise no one, and unless the Obama administration is willing to force a price for such behavior, we should only expect more atrocities to come.
So what force may McCain be referring to? According to TIME, it could be the use of manpads (man-portable air-defense systems), which are surface-to-air missiles capable of taking down helicopters and low-flying planes. Called "our worst nightmare" by ex-CIA director David Petraeus, a missile could cost the global economy $15 billion.
Which is a risky move, to say the least. Although rebels say that type of weapon could shift the civil war in Syria, some U.S. lawmakers don't even want to risk trying to get such weapons in the hands of the opposition for fear that they will land in the wrong hands. Others, like McCain, say it's worth the risk at this point.
Manpads may not actually be sent to Syria. The Obama administration would only be willing to take that risk and a $15 billion gamble if they could monitor and control the weapons, and have GPS tracking so they can render the weapon useless with remote "kill switches" if taken outside of approved areas.
While some experts say manpads would be a beneficial game changer, other experts say the effectiveness would largely depend on a few key factors, such as how well the opposition would use the manpads, and how advanced the manpads actually are. Still, the U.S. is examining all allegations before making any decisions to act, and remembering what the Syrian government has been capable of in the past.