Accusations of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria are disturbing, to say the least. If the reports are to be believed (and we only have pro-opposition reports to go on, so the scale, if not the event, is open to question), it would be far and away the most heinous act of the civil war. The world community is rightly calling for a swift investigation, but one would hope that various intelligence agencies already have a reasonable analysis of what really occurred.
Absent any access to such intelligence assessments, the thing that sticks out most about this incident is its timing. After months of wrangling over whether UN chemical weapons inspectors would be allowed in to investigate older claims and counter-claims, a few days after they arrive, a devastating chemical weapons attack occurs only kilometres from where the inspectors are housed.
Three possibilities exist as to why an event such as this may have occurred at precisely this time:
- The Assad regime is sending a message that it doesn't care about the international community and is deliberately thumbing its nose at the UN inspectors in order illustrate the UN's impotence.
- A Syrian army local-area commander had conducted an attack without reference to higher command because he doesn't care or in the hope that the opposition will be fingered for blame.
- The opposition (whichever sub-element) has carried out the strike to coincide with the UN inspection team's presence in order to blame the Assad regime, garner further international support and prod the West into taking more decisive action against Assad or in favour of the opposition.
And of course there is always the possibility that it never happened as described, or that the reports refer to an incident(s) that happened some time ago.
It's terrible to think that we cannot automatically apportion blame for an event of such cruelty and horror, or that the event didn't occur as described and is being used for people's own political purposes. Such are the depths to which the credibility of protagonists in the Syrian civil war have plunged that even a chemical weapons attack is open to interpretation.