LATEST: Insurgents Advance in Aleppo Province, Put More Pressure on Aleppo City
The Obama Administration continued to exercise great caution on Thursday over the regime assault that killed at least 1360 people near Damascus, refusing to call it a chemical weapons attacks and making no commitment to American action.
President Obama still has not spoken about the events, but the White House spokesperson said at yesterday’s press briefing:
At this time, right now, we are unable to conclusively determine CW use, but we are focused, every minute of every day since these events happened yesterday, on doing everything possible within our power to nail down the facts.
As for action, spokesperson Jen Psaki described Secretary of State John Kerry’s phone calls to foreign leaders, including Syrian National Coalition head Ahmad Asi al-Jarba:
He expressed our sincere condolences to the Syrian people….He reiterated the United States commitment to looking into what has happened on the ground….He encouraged…all opposition groups to work with the UN in their investigation…and that the Syrian regime grant access.
So far, the only response of the international community to Wednesday’s attacks has been a United Nations Security Council statement calling for — but not demanding — access to the sites to UN inspectors.
In June, the Obama Administration said it would begin public supply of arms to insurgents. However, on the day of the attacks, a letter confirmed the position of the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, that there should be no intervention beyond expanded humanitarian aid.
Psaki said of the Dempsey letter:
The context makes clear that military options cannot be considered in isolation. That’s why our national security interests, why our goal of advancing our own interests on the ground, why a number of factors are part of the discussion. They have been. They will continue to be.
As we expected after the fall of the regime’s Menagh Airbase earlier this month, insurgents are trying to take other key positions in Aleppo Province and tighten the siege on Aleppo city.
Reports indicate that opposition fighters have attacked pockets of regime strength such as the villages of Nubl and Zahraa (see earlier entry), Khanasser on the Homs-Hama road, the Kweiras Airbase, and an air defense base, where insurgents seized crates of weapons:
The operation involves at least six brigades, including the Northern Storm Brigade of the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra.
US CBS News reports, from Administration officials, that American intelligence detected activity at known Syrian chemical weapons sites before Wednesday’s regime attack that killed at least 1,360 people.
The officials said that, as similar activity had been previously detected, the assumption then was that the Syrians were moving things around for security reasons.
The officials also said U.S. intelligence agencies are now leaning to the conclusion that Syria did use chemical weapons.
EA’s Joanna Paraszczuk evaluates that the leak may be part of an attempt by the Obama Administration — or part of the Administration — to set up a pretext for American intervention such as airstrikes.
Islamist faction Harakat Ansar As-Sham have claimed to have seized an air defense base in Hejira, West Ghouta. The claim is unconfirmed.
A poster from one of the protests in Aleppo today, which criticized the international community for its failure to act after Wednesday’s attacks in the Damascus suburbs:
Claimed footage posted Friday of the Free Syrian Army’s Northern Storm Brigade firing mortars at the Shia villages of Nubl and Zahraa in Aleppo. The two villages are important Shia enclaves in Aleppo.
The Northern Storm Brigade was one of the FSA units involved in the months-long siege and then capture of the strategic Menagh Airbase in Aleppo.
On Thursday EA reported, after a conversation with a medical expert, that the victims’ symptoms described by field hospital doctors were “consistent with an anti-cholinesterase agent” like Sarin.
The Guardian supports that conclusion with testimony from other specialists:
Stefan Mogl, a Swiss chemical weapons expert and former arms inspector, said: “There’s a significant number of videos of children’s faces and of adults who seem to have been exposed, that show typical symptoms of acetylcholinesterase inhibition poisoning, which coincides with a nerve agent.”
Mogl [said]…it was very likely the agent used was sarin. “The significance is, it’s not a single case. One person with constricting of the pupils, or with excessive salivation, or with spasms, or gasping for air, one single incident is not very significant, but … I came to the conclusion that there is a likelihood of nerve agent poisoning and this should be thoroughly investigated. You see children dying, people with very severe effects. I’ve seen a lot of people with uncontrolled muscle movement.”
Alastair Hay, another former weapons expert, said, “I’m struck by the appearance of the victims and the absence of any signs of trauma. This suggests some powerful asphyxiant. Many of the victims have individual signs suggestive of exposure to an organophosphate agent. Nasal and lung secretions are very evident in many of the victims. These are just some of the signs consistent with [such] exposure.”
There is a growing feeling of anger among Syrians that the international community is sitting back and watching while Assad targets his own people. That anger was expressed in the theme of protests today in several of the East Ghouta villages where the attacks took place is “Bashar the terrorist targets us with chemicals while the world looks on”. In other towns and villages around Syria, but most notably in Aleppo and Aleppo Province, demonstrators adopted the same theme.
Al Sakhur, Aleppo
Aleppo Old City
Kafr Zita, Hama
Footage from Friday claims to show the FSA’s Al Fajr Brigade targeting regime tanks in Muadamiyeh As-Sham, the site of one of the “poison gas” attacks on Wednesday.
This video shows one of the regime tanks and uses a split screen technique to show a sniper from the Al Fajr Brigade aiming at it. There are bodies of regime soldiers lying on the ground near the tank. The FSA sniper has a message for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: “Come and collect the bodies of your mercenaries!”
Hojjatollah Soori, a member of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, has declared that Wednesday’s chemical attack was not committed by the Assad regime — but, rather, by insurgents seeking to undermine the Syrian government.
Soori said that “Syria terrorists drew up the scenario of a chemical attack on Damascus suburbs to deal a blow to Assad.”
The attacks, according to Soori, were designed to foster antagonism towards the regime in the international community, downplay the Syrian military’s “achievements”, and distort the realities of the conflict on the ground.
For a more detailed analysis of Wednesday’s attacks see Joanna Paraszczuk’s 4 Points On A Chemical Weapons Attack & What Happens Now.
(Cross-posted from Iran Today)
Officials at the Pentagon have been updating target lists for possible airstrikes on a range of Syrian government and military installataions, as part of contingency planning for the US response to the attacks by the Assad regime that killed over 1,300 people on Wednesday.
The officials said that the military options being considered were not designed to topple the regime but to punish Assad if there is conclusive evidence that his government was responsible for the use of chemical weapons against civilian targets.
However, in an interview with CNN, President Obama downplayed the likelihood of direct US military intervention.
He cautioned, “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
Obama did not portray the attacks as having used chemical weapons, which he said last August would be a “red line”, describing them simply as a “big event of grave concern.”
Analysis of the president’s remarks can be seen in a separate feature here.
State news agency SANA claims that eight people have been killed and many wounded by an 18-year-old suicide bomber at a restaurant in the al-Mogambo neighborhood of Aleppo.
SANA says the attack during a party for a recent high school graduate. She was killed as was Hassan Mhana, a reporter at pro-regime al-Ikhbariya TV.
Following Chemical Attack, FSA Commanders Slam Lack Of International Support: “After Today There Are No Red Lines”
A video statement made Thursday by FSA leaders of the North, East, West, Central and Homs fronts, and representatives of military councils and and revolutionary leaders, slams international inaction in the wake of reports of a “poison gas” attack in the Damascus suburbs.
In the statement, the leaders criticize the participation of “Majusians” — a reference to Iran — and the use of “all kinds of weapons including those that are forbidden internationally”, after a year of “false promises” by countries that called themselves the friends of the Syrian Revolution, who also do not recognize the “red lines” that they themselves set.
At the same time, the statement says, countries like Russia, China, Iraq, and Iran, as well as Hezbollah and certain “mercenaries from Egypt” have provided all kinds of support for the “Majusian occupation”.
Meanwhile, the position of Arab and Islamic countries has remained poor, and does not match the sacrifices of the Syrian people, who remain locked into the war, which will reach the entire Ummah.
Accordingly, the statement says, they will cease all forms of cooperation with those States who made the U.N. Security Council resolution [a reference the U.N. Security Council statement on the chemical weapons attacks] unless there is an urgent, international investigation opened onto the criminal regime’s use of chemical weapons and [until it is] held accountable.
The statement calls on all factions of the FSA to work and coordinate with all forces on the ground in Syria, and says they should trust in God alone, and that they should act as one against the “Majusian occupation”, backed by the international community, and that the FSA should know that there are no “red lines” after the chemical attacks, and that they are able to gain control of the chemical warehouses to prevent any future attacks.
If Arab and Islamic support was not commensurate with the sacrifices of the Syrian people, then the leaders would resign, the statement said.
President Assad has changed several members of his Cabinet, notably the Economy Minister, the Industry Minister, the Internal Trade Minister, and the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs.
The re-shuffle indicates the regime’s concern over Syria’s worsening economy, amid reports of difficulties with production, currency, and provision of basic services.
The Assad regime on Thursday continued to pound targets in the Damascus countryside. Footage from Daraya shows heavy shelling on the city:
The Local Coordination Committees claim that 115 people were killed on Thursday, including 44 in Damascus and its suburbs, 32 in Aleppo Province, and 12 in Idlib Province.
The Violations Documentation Center put the number of dead at 70,493 since the conflict began in March 2011. Of the dead, 53,269 are civilians.
The number of Syrian child refugees has reached one million, United Nations agencies have claimed in a joint report.
The UN High Commission for Refugees and UN Children’s Fund said that children make up half of all refugees from the Syrian conflict.
The report estimates that about 740,000 Syrian child refugees are under the age of 11 and that more than 3,500 children have crossed the borders alone or separated from their families.
The UNHCR and UNICEF assessed that about 7,000 children have been killed during the conflict and more than two million children have been internally displaced within Syria.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Syrian regime to allow UN inspectors to investigate “without delay” the sites of Wednesday’s claimed chemical weapons attacks near Damascus.
Ban, speaking to a diplomatic forum in the South Korean capital Seoul, said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a “crime against humanity” and warned of “serious consequences” if this was proven:
This is a grave challenge to the entire international community — and to our common humanity, especially considering it occurred when the United Nations expert mission is in the country.
I can think of no good reason why any party, either government or opposition forces – would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter.
The UN has sent Under Secretary General Angela Kane to Damascus to negotiate for access.
On 31 July, Kane and UN chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom agreed with the Assad regime, after months of delays, that UN inspectors could visit three sites of claimed chemical weapons attacks.
The UN inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday and have been in their hotel during this week’s regime assault.