Since this story was published, there have been allegations of a major new chemical attack in East Ghouta, not far from Damascus. Hundreds of people are dead, according to the Syrian opposition. If the reports are even remotely accurate, this would be the biggest chemical weapons strike in decades. A preliminary examination of the footage by American intelligence officials and outside experts leads them to believe that chemical weapons were involved in the attack. But piecing together exactly what happened in Ghouta won't be easy; the Assad regime has taken deliberate steps to hide its chemical tracks, as the story below shows.
All of the major players in Syria -- and all of their major backers -- now agree that chemical weapons have been used during the civil war there. But the mysteries surrounding a string of alleged nerve gas assaults over the spring have, in some ways, only grown thicker. The motivations and tactics behind the unconventional strikes continue to puzzle U.S. intelligence analysts. And the arrival in Damascus of United Nations weapons inspectors holds little promise of solving the riddles.
Independent tests of environmental samples by both Russian and American spy services indicate that the deadly nerve agent sarin was used during a March 19 battle in Khan al-Assal, for example. Beyond that basic fact, there's little agreement. The Russians blame the Syrian rebels for launching that unconventional strike on the Aleppo suburb, while the Americans say it was a case of chemical friendly fire.
U.S. intelligence officials tell Foreign Policy that they're continuing to investigate claims of new chemical weapon attacks in Syria, including an alleged strike earlier this month in the town of Adra that left men foaming at the mouth and dogs twitching in the street. They're continuing to see supplies shuffled around some of Syria's biggest chemical weapons arsenals, such as the notorious Khan Abu Shamat depot.
But the number of reports of unconventional attacks has dropped sharply since early June, these same officials say. That's right around the time when forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad took over the strategic town of Qusair and gained the upper hand in Syria's horrific civil war. The decline provides to American spy services another indication that it was Assad's forces who launched the chemical attacks; there's little need to gas people when you're winning.
There was a time when such determinations appeared to hold geopolitical significance. The Obama administration repeatedly called the use of chemical weapons a "red line." But that line has now been crossed repeatedly, with little consequence. And that's led U.S. intelligence officials to confront another question: How massive would the chemical strike have to be in order to prompt America and its allies to intervene in Syria in a major way?
"As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we won't do anything," an American intelligence official admits.
The U.N. inspection team arrived in Damascus on Sunday to test claims by Syria, Britain, France, and the United States that chemical weapons have been used in the country's two and a half year-long civil war. Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who is leading the U.N. mission, plans to spend at least 14 days in the country and to visit at least three sites where chemical agents have allegedly been used.
The team's arrival will mark the culmination of nearly five months of often-acrimonious negotiations over the U.N team's terms of access. It comes just weeks after Sellstrom and the U.N.'s undersecretary general for disarmament, Angela Kane, struck an agreement with top officials in Damascus on the terms of the inspections.
In advance of the visit, the United Nations has sought to dampen expectations that the team will blame one side or the other for using chemical agents. The mission's mandate, U.N. officials have repeatedly insisted, is simply to determine whether chemical weapons have been used, not to establish who ordered the attacks.
Rumors of chemical weapons use have been making the rounds since late last December, when reports surfaced indicating that chemical agent may have been used in a government offensive in Homs. But the accusations began to grow more numerous and more believable in March. It was Syria that first asked the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to conduct an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons on March 19 in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo.