Syrian opposition activists allege government forces launched a devastating poison gas attack this week that killed hundreds of civilians in suburban Damascus. If true, it would be the war's worst atrocity – and would mock the "red line" warning that U.S. President Barack Obama issued to Syria's Bashar al-Assad exactly a year ago.
The claims also reinforce the urgency of bolstering the chemical weapons inspection regime in Syria. Five months after their first alleged use, the world has no clear picture of how often or by whom chemical weapons have been employed, nor about the security of remaining weapons depots.
The reports emerge at a time when a U.N. investigative team is already in Syria, charged with assessing past reports of chemical weapons use by both the Syrian army and rebels. The team is led by Ake Sellstrom, a talented Swedish scientist who previously served as an inspector for the UNSCOM and UNMOVIC inspection regimes in Iraq.
As in the past, Damascus has denied the reports, insisting that although it has such weapons, they would be used only to defend the country from external attack – never "inside Syria". Given the presence of weapons inspectors, some outside observers may be tempted to dismiss the attacks as fabrications. But as Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the U.K.'s Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment told the BBC, the scenes that have emerged on YouTube and other social media, including children having convulsions, would be "very difficult to stage-manage."