Western military sources revealed that three chemicals were believed present in the Scud B rocket which exploded in the Aleppo neighborhood of Khan al-Assal Tuesday March 19: phosphorus, chlorine and Agent 15 or BZ. Although the Assad regime and the rebels charged each other with firing the rocket, which killed 15-31 people and injured more than a hundred, it was not possible to verify which side was actually responsible. The White House denied it was the rebels, while Moscow insisted that it was, in support of the accusation from Damascus.
The assumption in Israeli security circles is that either or both sides may have tried a one-shot use of a chemical weapon to test the limits of world-power tolerance. The incapacitating Agent 15 which causes choking is the least harmful of Assad’s chemical arsenal. A US army spokesman said the American armed forces had plans for intervening in the Syrian conflict if chemical weapons were used.
Intelligence sources reported Tuesday:
Extensive preparations by Syrian army units for launching chemical weapons against rebel forces have been sighted in the northern town of Homs, Western intelligence agencies revealed, March 19.
Damascus is thought to have paved the way for resorting to unconventional weaponry with an accusation run by the state news agency SANA Tuesday that Syrian rebels had fired a rocket containing chemical substances in the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo, allegedly killing 15 people, mostly civilians. Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of “firing a chemical weapon on a long-range SCUD, after which 20 people died of asphyxia and poisoning.”
Neither of the accusations could be immediately verified.
But a Reuters photographer said he had seen people come into two Aleppo hospitals with breathing problems after the attack. They claimed people were suffocating on the streets.
Western intelligence sources reckoned that for the Assad regime, Homs, the scene of fierce battles between government and rebel forces in recent days, is likely to be the first place where the Assad government turns to chemical warfare. A rebel victory there would be a grave setback for the regime because it would sever the main highway linking the Syrian military forces fighting in the towns of Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo and Idlib.
Monday and Thursday, therefore, heavy government reinforcements from the South and Damascus were piled up on the embattled town, along with large numbers of warplanes and attack helicopters, for an all-out effort to cut short the rebel advance.
Military sources report that the importance Assad attaches to carrying the day in Homs is represented by the elite units he has assembled in and around the city: Heavy armored forces of the 4th and 5th Republican Guard Divisions were imported from Damascus and the 18th and 19th Divisions are there too, issued in the last few hours with chemical warfare gear.
Syrian ruler Bashar Assad can on no account afford to be defeated in the key town of Homs just when US President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive in the Middle East Wednesday. He will therefore use whatever it takes to prevent this happening, even chemical weapons if they are the only answer.
The allegation that the rebels have resorted to chemical warfare strongly points to an Assad ploy to go there himself and finger the opposition as having struck first.
The emergence of dread unconventional weapons on the Syrian battlefield during the US president’s stay in the region is bound to dominate his talks with its leaders. It may even result in changes in his schedule and itinerary.