BEIRUT: Syria’s government and rebels Wednesday both demanded an international investigation into an alleged chemical weapons attack, as the country’s feared arsenal became the latest propaganda tool in the 2-year-old civil war.
President Barack Obama said the United States was investigating whether chemical weapons had been deployed in Syria, but noted that he was “deeply skeptical” of claims by President Bashar Assad’s regime that rebel forces were behind such an attack.
“Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer,” Obama said in a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
The use of chemical weapons by either side is a nightmare scenario. Along with its warnings about Assad, the West is just as concerned that rebel forces, including some linked to Al-Qaeda, could get their hands on Syria’s chemical weapons supplies.
Despite the importance, any clear confirmation of the nature of the attack that took place Tuesday in the northern village of Khan al-Assal, killing at least 31 people, is unlikely.
The two sides blamed each other for a chemical attack without offering clear proof or documentation, as has frequently been the case in the civil war.
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari told reporters at the United Nations Wednesday that he had asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to form “a specialized, independent and neutral technical mission to investigate the use by the terrorist groups operating in Syria of chemical weapons” in Khan al-Assal.
Jaafari called the attack “very serious and alarming and unacceptable and unethical.”
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said he would have something to say “once we receive any formal request, which we have so far not received.” He said the secretary-general remained convinced that the use of chemical weapons by any party under any circumstances would constitute “an outrageous crime.”
Syria’s main opposition group also demanded an international investigation in the matter. “All evidence now indicates that the Assad regime is using these weapons against its own people,” the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said.
“The Coalition demands a full international investigation, and asks for a delegation to be sent to inquire and visit the site,” the group said in a statement.
Obama has declared the use, deployment or transfer of the weapons to be his “red line” for possible military intervention in the Arab country.
“When you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking at potentially even more horrific scenes than we’ve already seen in Syria,” Obama said in Jerusalem, “and the international community has to act on that information.”
Russia and Iran, Assad’s main allies, backed his regime’s charges.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast blamed “armed opposition groups,” calling use of chemical weapons “an inhumane act.”
“Undoubtedly, the responsibilities of a repetition of such crimes would fall on those committing it and the countries that support them,” he was quoted by state TV as saying, apparently referring to Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“There’s definitely a propaganda war between the regime and opposition,” said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London.
“Because we cannot verify either claims, we are going to be stuck in the same cycle of accusations, unless some international mission is actually sent there to verify what happened,” he said.
The opposition’s disunity was on display again Wednesday.
About a dozen members of the Syrian National Coalition suspended their membership a day after it elected the first rebel Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto.
Among them were senior members including Suheir Atassi, Kamal Labwani, and spokesman Waleed al-Bunni. Atassi explained why she suspended her membership. “I refuse to be a follower and I refuse to be simply a woman who decorates their gatherings and conferences while they make all the decisions,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
Coalition members have complained of the dominance of the Brotherhood in the SNC, and Hitto – little known in Syria – was one of the top Brotherhood candidates.
In fighting Wednesday, activists reported intense clashes in the Qunaitra region on the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels seized control of parts of villages a few kilometers from the cease-fire line after fierce fighting with regime forces.
The group reported shelling in Al-Hajar al-Aswad outside Damascus, and said southern neighborhoods of the capital, including Yarmouk and Qadam districts, were the scene of “fierce fighting between rebels and regime troops overnight.”
Shelling also targeted the Jobar district, where battles were ongoing. A shell landed in the Qassaa neighborhood, a largely Christian district, the group said, adding that it had no information on casualties. It also reported regime air raids in Raqqa province in the north, where rebel forces seized control of Raqqa city earlier this month, as well as in the central province of Hama.
In Aleppo, government warplanes bombed the southern Sukkari neighborhood, causing casualties, the group said. In Homs, the Observatory reported clashes between government troops and rebels in Bab Amr neighborhood, after the area was shelled overnight.