The Fog of Chemical War

Editor’s Note: After eight months of investigation, why does so little remain known about chemical weapons use in Syria? In
an August 19, 2013 Foreign Policy op-ed
, Noah Shachtman and Colum Lynch explore the confusion and ambiguity surrounding the regime’s employment of Sarin gas. They conclude that Assad’s forces are likely diluting chemical agents deployed in conventional attacks and that the UN’s inquiry faces significant headway.

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.

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