Why exactly, Syrian President Bashar Assad asked in mid-June, were so few people killed in the chemical weapons attacks he had allegedly ordered? The United States government had cited a death toll of 100 to 150 a few days earlier. But it would be "illogical," Assad pointed out, to kill such a small number of enemies with chemical weapons, since they could easily be killed "using conventional weapons" instead.
Indeed, the use of weapons of mass destruction to kill a handful of civilians or rebels instead of against masses of people contradicts the common conception of these types of weapons.
Nevertheless, weeks earlier, a well-known poison gas expert voiced his suspicion in an off-the-record conversation that minimal use of chemical weapons was seen as the best way get the West used to its deployment -- triggering an ongoing international dispute over whether nerve gas was being used at all. The expert said that, at some point, "the commotion over the use of chemical weapons per se" would "have dissipated."
"Assad has been extremely calculating with the use of force," former US Army intelligence officer Joseph Holliday wrote in a study for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. "He's introducing chemical weapons gradually."
Eventually, according to the plan, he would then follow this up with a major attack and continue until he felt strong enough to follow in the footsteps of other dictators, including his father, who had no scruples about mowing down opposition strongholds. During the massacre in Hama, for example, up to 10,000 people reportedly died under the orders of Assad's father. Another precursor was former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose troops murdered 5,000 Kurds in a poison gas attack on the city of Halabja 25 years ago.
Has the West become so accustomed to daily violence that Assad can now expect Western politicians to look the other way when small children die after suffering muscle convulsions, tears shooting from their eyes and foam from their noses and mouths?
Can we look away when we see the small girl from a Damascus suburb, in a T-shirt embroidered with glittering thread, captured in an image so heartbreaking SPIEGEL decided to show only a suggestion of the brutality of her death on its cover?
The real question is this: Has Assad's plan worked? Was this the major strike, the prelude to an even more brutal war that experts had warned would happen -- and that the world, already accustomed to so many images of violence from Syria, will watch with pity but ultimately not do anything about? Or will something change, and Aug. 21 go down in history as the moment when a new level of brutality forced the world to react? Even President Barack Obama, who has thus far avoided any military response to the cruelty of the Assad regime, is now considering the use of cruise missiles against Damascus.
A Crime Against Humanity
What happened last Wednesday in the suburbs of Damascus doesn't just add another 1,000 dead to the more than 100,000 victims to date. It was mass murder, a crime against humanity that is outlawed for good reason. Poison gas doesn't just target soldiers, it affects civilians, including women and children -- giving them no opportunity to defend themselves or flee, instead quietly and indiscriminately killing everyone.
The first reports of the morning, about hundreds of dead and injured in various suburbs to the south and east of Damascus, were followed by videos of gruesome scenes: corridors and rooms full of half-naked and outwardly unharmed bodies, people trembling and uncontrollably salivating and gasping for breath. Doctors and volunteers were shown wading through water among the dead and pouring water on newly admitted victims, both to wash the poison off them and avoid falling victim to it themselves.
At about 3 a.m., rockets fell to the ground in several parts of the East Ghouta district east of Damascus, as well as in Darayya and Muadhamiya in the southwestern part of the city. Witnesses later said that there were no massive explosions.
One of the rockets, which struck on the edge of the town of Zamalka, left no crater and, instead, remained stuck in the ground largely intact. It was the same type of rocket that had been used in earlier presumed chemical attacks, but not an internationally known model. Rescuers later pulled only dead bodies out of undamaged houses near the impact site. There, barns contained dead chickens and the gardens, dead sheep.
A doctor from Irbin and a volunteer from Douma said that it wasn't until the mosque loudspeakers repeatedly announced warnings of a gas attack and residents were told to keep all doors and windows closed that they realized what had happened. "I was familiar with the patients' symptoms from earlier attacks," doctor Abu Akram recounts from the emergency hospital in Irbin. "People are externally unharmed, but they are foaming at the mouth and trembling, and their heartbeat becomes weaker and weaker. It was only a few victims in the past, but this time it was hundreds. They were lying on the floors of the treatment rooms, in the corridors, everywhere, and more and more kept coming. One after another, the patients around us lost consciousness. We injected atropine," a drug used to counteract the effects of Sarin nerve gas, "until we ran out. Then we used hydrocortisone, and finally we dripped onion juice. Most were revived, but 73 people died."
'We Lied to the Ambulance Drivers'
They had wanted to document and photograph every dead person, says Akram, "but we kept getting new patients on Wednesday, while family members were simultaneously picking up the dead." By Thursday evening the hospital in Irbin had nevertheless compiled a file of all the bodies, 41 identified and 32 unidentified, including many children. The task was complicated by the fact that most of the victims came from the nearby town of Zamalka but had been taken to Irbin, where the hospital is better equipped. The bodies were also later taken to Zamalka and laid out in front of the central mosque, so that family members could identify the dead.
Under Islamic religious law, the dead must be buried within a day, but it is almost impossible to simply leave bodies lying in the mid-August heat without electricity and cooling anyways. Many of the dead had already been buried by Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, often in mass graves.
The volunteer from Douma had already taken 13 wounded and dead victims to the hospital in his pickup truck when he too collapsed. "I was wearing a gas mask, but I didn't know that skin contact can also be deadly. Men wearing gloves tore off my clothes, hosed the others and me down with the hose from a fire truck, and gave us atropine injections. I was unconscious for an hour. When I came around, at about six, people were still being brought in. Many were completely disoriented and didn't know where or who they were. A little boy kept screaming at his mother: 'You are not my mother.' It was very eerie." According to the volunteer, about 150 residents were killed.
"We lied to the ambulance drivers," says the distraught logistics expert at the hospital in Muadhamiya. "They were afraid and had no gas masks, but we told them that it was already safe to drive to the site. What else could we have done? There were seven of them. Three came back." There hadn't yet been a chemical attack in the small town southwest of Damascus. The hospital was prepared, but not for such a large casualty count. "Besides, we couldn't reach the houses, because the artillery bombing began at about 7 a.m., and snipers were shooting at every car near the front. For a while we heard the sounds of people from a distance, but then it became silent."
Soaring Death Toll
It is still unclear how many people died in the attack. According to the opposition in exile, the figure is 1,300. By Friday morning, about 300 of the dead had been identified, but information from several villages was still missing. Another 200 victims, mostly children, have not yet been identified. In several places near the front line, dozens of bodies were reportedly still lying in their houses.
Sana, the official Syrian news agency, promptly denied the attacks, saying that all reports on the use of chemical weapons were "fabricated." But the large number of videos from the hospitals, of which 130 were posted on YouTube within a day, make it difficult for experts to conclude that poison wasn't used. Various experts, including Belgian chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders, Stefan Mogl of the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection and Alistair Hay of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, agreed that the combination of the symptoms of many patients was unmistakable and could not be simulated.
Experts say it's still unclear exactly which chemical agent was used, but the symptoms resembled those from earlier attacks. After those attacks, soil and body samples tested in French and British laboratories came out positive for sarin.
Who Will Stop Assad?
But why would Assad's army use these weapons two days after a team of United Nations chemical weapons experts arrived in Damascus? And only a few kilometers away from the hotel where they were staying? The Russian government, which initially characterized all news of the attack as "provocation," concluded that merely the presence of the UN inspectors in Damascus was sufficient proof that government troops couldn't have been behind the attacks. Nevertheless, the Kremlin is now also calling for an explanation from Assad.
Assad has belatedly given UN inspectors access to the site of the most recent attack, but, according to a senior Obama administration official the offer was "too late to be credible" because the delay had allowed evidence to decay. A vehicle belonging to the UN inspectors in Damascus was "deliberately shot at" by snipers on Monday, according to the United Nations. A UN spokesperson said the shooting had taken place in the area between rebel and government control.
Assad supporters also pointed out that the extremist Al-Nusra Front, which his aligned with al-Qaida, had gained control of the region east of Damascus and captured a chlorine gas plant there.
But experts doubt the rebels could have weaponized the chemicals found there. As poison gas specialist Stephen Johnson points out, enormous amounts of chemical agents are needed to kill hundreds of people, a feat impossible for the insurgents to pull off.
US reporter Jeffrey Goldberg suspects a completely different motive behind the attack: "Assad believes that no one -- not the UN, not President Obama, not other Western powers, not the Arab League -- will do a damn thing to stop him. There is a good chance he is correct."
Drawing a Red Line
The Syrian regime was suspected of moving parts of its chemical weapons arsenal about one year ago, at which point a spokesman for the US Pentagon first used the words "red line." The spokesperson said the administration was discouraging the Syrian regime from using these weapons, and if the "red line" was crossed, that action would be taken seriously.
Ten days later, the regime in Damascus admitted for the first time that it had chemical weapons. But it also claimed that Syria only intended to use the weapons to defend itself against foreign enemies. Before that point, that had been a state secret, even through experts had long assumed that Assad's military possessed large amounts of chemical weapons. The BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, estimates Damascus has up to 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, including 700 tons of sarin, as well as mustard and VX gas.
After the statement from the Pentagon spokesman, the US government repeatedly warned the Assad regime against using chemical weapons. On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama himself used the term "red line," saying there would be "enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons."
French President François Hollande also stated that the use of poison gas would be a "legitimate reason for direct intervention." In September, when there was growing evidence the Syrian army was beginning to move chemical weapons, then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed that Washington had sent a contingent of 150 troops, mostly special operations forces, to Jordan to help keep an eye on Syria's chemical weapons and bring them to safety, if necessary.
It is unclear when exactly chemical weapons were used for the first time in the conflict. In December 2012, US officials reported that Syria was now using Scud missiles -- which can easily be fitted with chemical warheads -- in the northern part of the country. Soon afterwards, a day before Christmas, Al Jazeera reported on a gas attack in Homs that claimed seven lives. However, there was no definitive evidence of the attack.
More and more videos were posted on YouTube showing dead animals and people -- the alleged victims of limited poison gas use -- in places like the city of Otaiba, near the Damascus airport. Chemical agents have reportedly been repeatedly used since then, as evidenced by soil and tissue samples, and eyewitness reports. This was the conclusion reached by the French and British governments and later reported to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A joint study by Harvard University and the University of Sussex lists 20 to 30 chemical weapons attacks within 18 months, although not all could be verified.
The largest likely use of chemical weapons before last week occurred on March 19 of this year in Khan al-Assal, a rebel-held city in Aleppo Province. Videos show workers without protective gear tending to the injured, who are gasping for air. In April, there were further reports of chemical weapons use, probably at low doses, in Aleppo, Homs and various suburbs and neighborhoods of Damascus.
But the US government didn't change course until four months ago, on April 25. For the first time, a White House spokesman admitted: "The Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin." But then the Americans tried to shift their red line. The use of chemical weapons alone was no longer a reason for intervention, Obama said. Instead, he added, it would first have to be determined what "exactly" happened, and whether it was the regime and not the rebels who had used the deadly weapons.
On April 13, the US once again declared that Assad had used poison gas -- which by then had allegedly claimed 100 to 150 lives -- and that in doing so he had crossed a red line for the international community. After the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, a senior government official told the Wall Street Journal: "There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack-clearly by the government." American intelligence agencies became convinced after their initial review that the massacre had occurred at the regime's behest.
Obama's Muddled Strategy
In June, Obama had also promised aid for the rebels in the form of light weapons and ammunition. But in the ensuing months, rebel commanders in northern Syria reported that the deliveries had made it into Turkey but not across the border. In Syria's Dara'a Province, a program backed by Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States to train and equip moderate rebel groups, which had begun in the first months of the year, ground to a sudden halt in May. "It's what the Americans want," liaison officers with the Jordanian intelligence services told the baffled Syrians.
What exactly does America want? "Our strategy for the Middle East?" retired General James Mattis, the former supreme commander for the region, asked recently. "There is nothing there."
Shortly before the night rockets armed with poison gas warheads struck around Damascus, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote, in a letter responding to an inquiry from Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel over whether the American military was capable of bringing down the Assad regime: "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."
The Pentagon has, of course, developed intervention scenarios in response to Obama's requests. They range from training and support for the rebels to taking over and securing Assad's chemical weapons arsenals, which would require the deployment of up to 60,000 American troops to the country. The establishment of a no-fly zone also seems feasible -- at a price of $1 billion (€750 million) a month. The US military found this to be too expensive.
Syria: The New Bosnia?
Now Obama is realizing the horrific images and numbers are forcing him to act. The two-year uprising has already claimed 100,000 lives, and as the UN reported last week, some 2 million Syrians have fled abroad. Many have even preferred to flee across the Tigris River into Iraq, also shaken by unrest, than be at the mercy of Assad's hate-filled militias at home. A quarter of Syria's 21 million inhabitants are refugees within the country, including a million children.
Eighteen years ago, it was the reports and images of the Srebrenica massacre that convinced the reluctant then US President Bill Clinton to intervene militarily and end the bloodbath in Bosnia. Today there is no longer any doubt at the White House over who is to blame for the worst atrocities and poison gas attacks in the war in Syria.
Last Thursday, Obama's national security team once again discussed the use of cruise missiles against the Syrian artillery positions from which Assad could launch his poison gas attacks. Communication centers and government buildings were also mentioned as potential targets. Secretary of State John Kerry had already called for such military operations some time ago, until Obama reined him in.
There has been no talk in Washington about a more comprehensive program than the use of long-range weapons, which Republican Senator John McCain has called for. US military leaders have respect for Assad's air defenses.
The administration remains divided, as has generally been the case with all of the president's military operations thus far. But it won't be easy to postpone a significant decision much longer. If Obama continues to exercise restraint, he will be sending an unmistakable signal that the use of weapons of mass destruction can occur without consequence.
The West's Reputation Is at Stake
The credibility of both the United States and its Western allies is on the line: Anyone who mentions a red line but doesn't back it up may as well forget about making any threats in the future. If that becomes its reputation, how will the United States ever rein in North Korea's bomb-makers or Tehran's mullahs?
This latest chemical weapons attack should finally set aside reservations about a military intervention. Poison gas is outlawed internationally -- a ban that should be respected. The 1999 Kosovo mission showed that citizens of Western countries are prepared to accept a well-founded humanitarian intervention. The Americans' invasion of Iraq triggered so much outrage precisely because the weapons of mass destruction Washington had claimed as justification were never found. No one doubts they exist in Syria.
Of course, after the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the setbacks in Libya and the possible failure of the Arab spring in Cairo, Obama's hesitancy is understandable. It is certainly more comprehensible than the strong demands of European countries -- which never translated into political action because everyone hoped the big brother in Washington would take care of things. And people in Washington have argued against a military intervention on the side the Syrian rebels by citing how poorly the United States had fared after supporting the Afghan mujahedin in their fight against the Soviet invasion in the 1970s.
This explains why the West, especially the United States, had consistently justified their inaction by arguing that helping the rebels could end up promoting radical forces. But non-intervention has achieved what it was actually intended to avoid: The jihadists are becoming stronger, making any intervention even more difficult.
Assad's Internal Reasons
According to a general in Syrian intelligence who fled to Jordan a few months ago, and who still has contacts within the regime, the Wednesday gas attack could also have a completely different motivation, having to do with the course of the civil war. "It happened for internal reasons. For weeks, the rebels have threatened Assad's home province of Latakia, where they have captured several villages," the general told SPIEGEL. "But many of the irregular fighters, which the government has used instead of the army, are Alawites from the region. Now they're going back to protect their villages." According to the general, the regime solved two problems with the gas attack, "holding the thinned out front around Damascus and strengthening the morale of the fanatics in their ranks."
This version is reinforced by the regime's explanations of the attack to its supporters. In Facebook groups -- like the News Network of the Syria Armed Forces -- which are the most important media war zone in Syria, an "important statement by the army and the armed forces" was issued under the banner of Bashar Assad: "Today we attacked a number of terrorist hideouts with heavy weapons. To protect the civilian population, chemical weapons were also used." This request was posted below the statement: "Bomb them even more severely, Mr. President, with chemicals and other things, because they don't deserve to live!" The Martyrs of the Homeland, also on Facebook, reported that "more than 500 were killed today in a cleansing operation." One of Assad's relatives wrote that Bashar should fire off even more chemical weapons, and a supporter from Latakia made the same request. After the massacre, militia fighters handed out sweets, a traditional way of celebrating joyous events in the Middle East, to pedestrians in the Mezze 86 neighborhood in the western part of Damascus, a stronghold of Alawite members of the security forces.
Every audience is told what it is supposed to hear. Regime supporters are given reports of victory while other countries are fed denials. So far, all sides have been generally satisfied with this approach. No matter how spurious the denials from Damascus are, so far they have managed to push events into a controversial gray zone. In the case of earlier presumed uses of chemical weapons, for example, more information was called for -- but too much information was apparently unwanted.
SPIEGEL Investigation Foiled
At the beginning of May, SPIEGEL and several groups of doctors in the area around Damascus tried to provide clear proof of the use of poison gas. The doctors wanted to obtain soil and tissue samples from areas after chemical attacks and bring them out of the country, provided SPIEGEL could ensure that they would be analyzed and the results publicized.
The samples were taken from bomb sites, the clothing and tissue of the dead, and the gas mask filter of one of the doctors treating casualties at the scene. The investigators documented their work in videos. Once a Western institution agreed to perform the analyses, a courier was to embark on the dangerous journey out of the country. That was the plan.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is affiliated with the United Nations, has certified 18 institutes worldwide for the analysis of chemical and biological weapons. SPIEGEL approached the institutes in Europe or the ministries that supervise them. Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Spain and Germany all declined. Department heads and diplomats spoke of internal conflicts between those who wanted to conduct the investigations and those who saw it as a "toxic" issue (which is, quite literally, correct).
Representatives of the individual countries suggested contacting senior OPCW or UN officials directly. But they too were uninterested, telling SPIEGEL to contact the individual countries instead. In the end, the rejecting parties consistently prevailed, sometimes without comment and sometimes citing the lack of a consistent chain of evidence -- a chain of evidence which would ideally go from manual sampling conducted by UN inspectors to laboratory analysis. The process went back and forth for two months, surrounded an overtone of regret from officials who said they would truly like to do more about the problem, but their hands were tied.
At the Friends of Syria conference in Qatar in late June, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told SPIEGEL that Germany would not analyze any samples outside the confines of a UN mission.
But now more governments are demanding there be consequences for the Wednesday attack. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called it a necessary "strong reaction," while his British counterpart William Hague said that the likelihood that rebels could be behind the gas massacre was "vanishingly small." Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Obama to take the lead in a military offensive.
The Foreign Ministry in Berlin said, "before we talk about consequences, we have to facilitate a real investigation." On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said the Syrian government "must be punished" if UN inspectors confirm the use of chemical weapons. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, in a statement, "Germany would be among those who would consider consequences to be appropriate."
All of this points to the risk that the same old pattern will repeat itself -- that the foreign ministers of the EU and the United States demand an investigation, which is initially blocked in the Security Council and then by the Syrian regime. But without UN support, and without an uninterrupted chain of evidence, there can be no verdict -- and, therefore, no consequences.