Has Assad crossed ‘red line’? Graphic video footage emerges claiming to show victims of nerve gas attack in Syria, but doubts cast on evidence of use of chemical weapons

 

Defence Correspondent

Syria denied on Friday it had used chemical weapons on rebel forces, denouncing as “lies” Western claims the nerve agent sarin was detected in samples sent from the front line.

Warning: The video contains disturbing images

A day after US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel went public with claims of sarin use “on a small scale” he believed came from regime forces, Syria’s Information Minister  Omran Al-Zoubi told Russian TV: “Everything the American minister and British government have said lacks credibility. It’s baseless, and it’s a new tactic to put political and economic pressure on Syria.”

President Obama, in his first comments about the new intelligence disclosure, said yesterday, "For the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues." He has issued similar warnings for months, saying the use of chemical weapons or transfer of the stockpiles to terrorists would cross a "red line" and carry "enormous consequences."

Seeking to show resolve, Obama added yesterday that "I've meant what I said."

Earlier yesterday the Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “war crime” that breached a “red line”, but stressed further evidence was required and he had no  desire to intervene militarily.  The claims chemical agents have been used comes at a time when stalemate on the ground, disunity among the political opposition, and growing unease about the predominance of extremists among rebel fighters, have led to calls for a renewed push for peace.

At the Nato conference of foreign ministers in Brussels this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the alliance’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, all proposed resuscitating the Geneva initiative for talks signed last year, with Mr Kerry stressing differences between Washington and the Kremlin were not as deep as before. The claim from Israel that the regime has already used the nerve agent Sarin on other occasions immediately led to Mr Kerry being asked  why this was not seen as crossing the “red line” by Assad which, Obama had warned, would lead to a change in Washington’s Syria policy. Forty-eight hours later, pressed by supporters of the Syrian opposition, the White House sent out a letter to members of Congress saying US intelligence agencies believed “with varying degrees of confidence” chemical weapons were used against rebels.

This follows a letter sent by the British and French governments to the United Nations accusing regime forces of using WMD. David Cameron continued to hold yesterday: “It’s limited but there is growing evidence that we have seen the use of chemical weapons, possibly by the regime.”

The picture which is emerging from accounts given by Western and Middle Eastern officials and members of the Syrian opposition is this: the tests so far have not yielded conclusive results; they have been based on blood, hair and soil samples as well as photographs and video footage; the samples have not been collected independently by Western investigators inside Syria but handed over by the rebels or, at least on one occasion, by Turkish intelligence; some of the footage may have been faked; the tests had been carried out at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and in America. Conclusions on them vary within US intelligence agencies and the experience of Iraq and WMD is a source of caution among officials in Washington and London.

Dr Sally Leivesley, a chemical and biological analyst, and a former scientific adviser to the Home Office, said: “There are things here which do not add up. A chemical attack using Sarin would leave mass fatalities and very few people alive. From what one hears about the symptoms it’s possible a harassing agent rather than a nerve agent was used”. She added: “The latest ones show people with an eye disorder, which is obviously worrying but does not mean chemical [weapons] or Sarin was involved. Some of the earlier photos we had seen were odd: people in masks and gloves, who were supposedly doctors, touching the victims – something which will not happen. The symptoms we’ve seen could be caused by other elements, such as chlorine.

“What may be considered ‘evidence’ of the presence of chemical elements in things like hair samples could be something like pesticide, which is the reason American agencies want to wait for further tests. Could there have been some faking? Possibly, but if that is being done it’s not because people are bad; it’s because they are desperate.”

Analysts are also puzzled by the way regime supposedly used its WMD arsenal. Dr Ralf Trapp, a specialist on chemical proliferation, said: “From a military perspective, it doesn’t make sense to use chemical weapons bit by bit. Why would the regime just put it on a grenade here or a rocket launcher there? It’s just not the way you would expect a military force to act.” 

Doubts about provenance of the evidence are providing the US administration the caveats to resist activating the “red-line” threat. Washington is now desperate to get UN inspectors involved. In Brussels, the Americans have urged Mr Lavrov to intercede with Assad to allow the teams access to sites inside Syria.

Q&A: THE DEADLY  EFFECTS OF SARIN GAS

Q How does sarin gas work?

If used as a weapon, it’s used to contaminate atmospheres, so normally it is inhaled. It can also be absorbed through the skin and affects the transmission of nerve signals to the muscles.

Q What are the symptoms of someone exposed to sarin gas?

At lower concentrations the pupils contract, the saliva gets flowing, so you get foaming of the nostrils and mouth. You will see respiratory difficulties and loss of control of the intestinal tract causing involuntary urination and defecation. At higher concentration the effect will be on the respiratory system and central nervous system.

Q How quickly is it possible to die after being exposed?

The onset of symptoms would be within minutes and death would be sometime within 10 minutes.

Q How much does it take to kill someone? 

Toxic doses would be in the area of 7 grams per human being.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
football
News
Tangerine Dream Edgar Froese
people
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us