Almost exactly a year since President Barack Obama warned the Syrian government against crossing the "red line" of using chemical weapons, activists claim that hundreds of people were killed in a poisonous gas attack Wednesday morning in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
If true, it would be the deadliest chemical attack in the bloody civil war that the U.N. says has already killed more than 100,000 people and, as journalist Kety Shapazian notes, one of the worst chemical weapons attacks in modern history:
Today's attack in Ghouta, Syria, is the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein massacred 5,000 in Halabja (1988)
— Kety Shapazian (@KetyDC) August 21, 2013
Reports from the scene are mixed. Rebels and activists have claimed anywhere from 213 to 1,300 people were killed when rockets carrying "poisonous gas" were launched around 3 a.m. by President Bashar al-Assad's military forces.
"Many of the casualties are women and children," a nurse at the site told Reuters. "They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims."
Unconfirmed amateur photos and videos purport to show the aftermath of the attack. (WARNING: These videos are disturbing and graphic.)
The Syrian government has denied launching an attack on Ghouta, claiming on state TV that there was "no truth whatsoever" to the reports.
So far, the international community has reacted with a mixture of caution and outrage. William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, said that if the reports of the attack were verified, "it would mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria." The European Union has called for a "thorough and immediate" inspection of the attack site.
The White House issued a statement saying that it was "deeply concerned" about the reports and formally requested that the U.N. "urgently investigate this new allegation."
In June, months after an alleged chemical strike in the village of Khan al-Assal in northern Syria, the Obama administration was ready to announce that it had "high confidence" that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.
That led to fighting in Congress over whether to arm the rebels, with some lawmakers concerned about sending weapons to opposition groups like Al-Nusra Front, which has been linked to al Qaeda. In July, rebels started reporting receiving shipments of small arms from the United States.
The handwringing over sending small arms to Syria shows how reluctant the White House is to support opposition groups with cruise missiles or other forms of direct military aid.
"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) on Monday. "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."
That cautious approach has irked activist groups and politicians like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Now, with reports of hundreds reported dead, the pressure on Obama to punish Syria for crossing the "red line" is only increasing:
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 21, 2013
Chemical weapons use in Syria a dotted, blurred, or moving red line. You pick.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) August 21, 2013
The new American red line on Syria: if the Assad regime uses space lasers.
— Kareem Shaheen (@kshaheen) August 21, 2013
Jeffrey Goldberg, writing at Bloomberg, also put blame on the president for not responding more strongly to previous reports of chemical weapons attacks.
... 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. [Bloomberg]
Activists in Syria have been more blunt in their criticism of the U.S. and U.N. responses to the attacks. It's particularly striking that the reported attack in Ghouta comes mere days after a 20-person U.N. team entered the country to investigate allegations of past uses of chemical weapons.
"This is a massacre by chemical weapons," Mohammed Saeed told the Associated Press. "The visit by the U.N. team is a joke. ... Bashar is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care."