As the Syrian civil way went into its third year this week, signs abounded of increasing readiness for the use of chemical weapons on both sides of the conflict.
Since February, the US, Israel, Ankara and Amman have been aware of Bashar Assad’s resolve to override their threats and resort to deadly poison gas if the rebels closed in on the heart of Damascus. On April 3, an unnamed Syrian army officer made the warning clear. By continuing to advancie on Damascus, he said, “the rebels and their leaders” were assured of “certain death.”
At about the same time, debkafile reported exclusively that the Syrian ruler had ordered protective suits for chemical warfare and gas masks distributed to the 4th and 3rd Divisions defending the capital. Tank commanders were told to activate their filtering systems against chemical and biological agents.
Protective suits have since been distributed to the Syrian army units fighting in southern Syria and the Golan, the enclave divided between Syria and Israel by the 1974 ceasefire that ended the Syrian war of attrition after the Yom Kippur War.
These steps were registered by the joint counter-chemical warfare center set up between the US, Israel, Turkey and Jordan when President Barack Obama visited their capitals in the third week of March. In the last few days, Israeli troops were asked by this center to start handing out atropine injections or IV drips to Syrian rebels fighting Syrian troops on the Golan.
Extracted from deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) and mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), atropine is highly effective for blocking such nerve agents as sarin, VX, soman and tabun and counteracting the effects of poisoning, such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and low heart rate.
The IDF’s distribution of a chemical weapon antidote to Syrian rebels may be regarded as the first Israeli intervention in the Syrian conflict, a small step past administering medical treatment to Syrians wounded in battle.
The Syrian high command will have noted this, or been tipped off by its Iranian, Russian or Hizballah intelligence comrades. And, say debkafile’s military sources, this may account for the Syrian decision for the first time in 34 years to direct shell fire at an IDF Golani patrol on duty Friday night, April 12, in the northern Golani area of Kibbutz El-Rom.
No one was hurt. But in order to deter the Syrians from making this attack a precedent, Israeli artillery and a Tamuz rocket returned the fire, achieving a direct hit on the Syrian outpost.
The British disclosure April 12 in the Times of London of soil samples smuggled out of Syria provided forensic evidence of the use of chemical weapons but carefully avoided assigning responsibility.
Though containing traces of “some kind of chemical weapon” collected from an unidentified “neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus,” the British experts could not identify the type of weapon – possibly even tear gas – or whether it was fired by forces loyal to President Assad or the rebels fighting him.
debkafile’s military sources note that, even if Britain’s MI6 secret service knew the answers to these questions, they would take care not to make them public so as not to build up the pressure for Western military intervention – pledged by President Obama in the event of chemical weapons being used in Syria – before the US president was ready to give the go signal.