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As U.S. Moves to Arm Syrian Rebels, Questions Raised About Reports of Chemical Weapons Attack

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The Obama administration is reportedly close to begin arming Syrian rebels with “lethal weaponry” in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad. The Washington Post reports President Obama will make a final decision in the coming weeks on what one official described as “assistance that has a direct military purpose.” Syrian rebels have already asked Western backers for anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles. This comes as Israel and U.S. sources have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons. On Tuesday, President Obama said chemical-weapon use in Syria would be a “game changer.” We speak to Tracey Shelton, a GlobalPost senior correspondent covering Syria. Her most recent article is “Syria: The Horrific Chemical Weapons Attack that Probably Wasn’t a Chemical Weapons Attack.” Last month, Shelton won a George Polk Award for “communicating the human tragedy of the conflict in Syria in a way that is impossible to ignore or forget.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Obama administration is reportedly close to beginning arming the Syrian rebels with “lethal weaponry” in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad. The Washington Post reports President Obama will make a final decision in the coming weeks on what one official described as “assistance that has a direct military purpose.” Syrian rebels have already asked Western backers for anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles. Fighting in Syria over the past two years has already left an estimated 70,000 people dead and created 1.2 million refugees.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Obama cited reports that chemical weapons had been used inside Syria.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don’t have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened. And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama went on to say the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By “game changer” I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us. Now, we’re already, as I said, invested in trying to bring about a solution inside of Syria. Obviously there are options that are available to me that are on the shelf right now, that we have not deployed, and that’s a spectrum of options. As early as last year, I asked the Pentagon, our military, our intelligence officials to prepare for me what options might be available. And I won’t go into the details of what those options might be. But, you know, clearly, that would be an escalation, in our view, of the threat to the security of the international community, our allies and the United States, and that means that there are some options that we might not otherwise exercise that we would—that we would strongly consider.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on Syria, we’re joined by Tracey Shelton, GlobalPost senior correspondent, covering Syria and the wider Middle East. She just returned from Aleppo, Syria. She’s joining us from Antakya, Turkey. Last month, she won the George Polk Award for, quote, “communicating the human tragedy of the conflict in Syria in a way that is impossible to ignore or forget.” Her latest piece is called “Syria: The Horrific Chemical Weapons Attack that Probably Wasn’t a Chemical Weapons Attack.”

Tracey Shelton, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain this latest piece. What evidence do you have of what took place?

TRACEY SHELTON: Well, I visited the sites of the alleged chemical weapon attacks and met with victims, with survivors, with rescuers, doctors, and it just—to me, it’s clear that there was some kind of chemical that was used. It was quite small-scale in the attacks that I saw. And the effects of it were—were clearly from some chemical, but they didn’t appear to be as severe as they would if it was one of these banned chemicals that the world is afraid of, that the regime in Syria do have access to. Most of the people survived and recovered within five days, whereas if it was a gas like sarin gas, which there was a lot of talk about it being this, that there wouldn’t have been survivors to this extent.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tracey Shelton, you also talk about the—not only the health effects, but the canisters that were recovered that carried the chemicals, that seemed more in line with tear gas canisters than, for instance, sarin. Could you talk about the delivery instruments that were used for these chemicals?

TRACEY SHELTON: Yeah, they were quite small, little plastic canisters. They did also have a metal section, which seemed to be some kind of small explosive, maybe designed to spread it. The witnesses, the neighbors had heard a helicopter coming overhead, so it was believed by everyone on the ground that it was dropped by air, which would seem to indicate the regime, as they’re the only ones that have access to helicopter.

The one I spent most of my time researching the attack was in the Kurdish region, who haven’t actually sided clearly either with the government or with the FSA, with the opposition groups. They’ve kind of kept a stand in the middle. So, there was a lot of speculation as to who would have attacked this area. But, yes, since it did appear to come from an air strike, it does indicate the regime. But it’s—again, it was—the gas, the effects of this gas were not really as harsh as it would have been if it was sarin gas. Also, it seems a bit more worse than tear gas, but no one has actually managed to identify what it was, what this chemical was yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Tracey, you begin your piece, “The Horrific Chemical Weapons Attack that Probably Wasn’t a Chemical Weapons Attack,” by saying, “Yasser Younes went to bed around midnight on April 13. When he woke up two days later, he was in a hospital, and his wife and two young children were dead.” Can you tell us this story from there?

TRACEY SHELTON: Yes, well, he—it was actually dropped into their home. It fell onto their courtyard stairs just outside. So, when he woke up, he had opened the door. His only recollection was just seeing some smoke. And then he was in a coma for the next few days. From there, I spoke with the neighbors who had come in to help, and they’d found the two young boys were dead. The mother later died in hospital. So that was the whole family that was inside the house. The neighbors that came in to help them, they also fell ill. Most of them were in a coma also for a day or two.

And then the next party to arrive were the Kurdish police and members of the YPG forces, the Kurdish militia forces that control the area, and many of them also fell ill, up ’til the next people arriving on the scene like three hours later. And even doctors that treated these victims, after they were moved to the hospital in Afrin, many of the doctors even suffered effects, but much more mild effects. Yeah, so this—it definitely indicates some kind of chemicals working here, because none of these people had injuries from any kind of explosion. It was just a chemical reaction.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tracey Shelton, you’ve also, in other articles in the conflict zone, dealt with the al-Nusra group. The United States calls them terrorists. You say in one of your articles that one person’s terrorists is another person’s freedom fighters. Could you talk about your interviews and the time you spent with the al-Nusra group?

TRACEY SHELTON: Yeah, it’s such a complicated situation in Syria. And I guess the main purpose of that comment was to show that the word “terrorist” is often used—it was always used politically and depends on what side you’re on. And it doesn’t mean that whether they are terrorists or not; it’s just—it’s a term that’s used for—basically, if it’s someone who stands against what you stand for, this is the term to use to describe them. President Bashar uses the term to describe the whole opposition forces; America, al-Nusra, because they are affiliated and they’ve recently come out to say that they’re affiliated with al-Qaeda. Yeah, so, I mean, many of these groups—in opposition, on the government’s side, and throughout Syria—are using methods that could be described as terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the difference between sarin gas and the kind of gas that you’re talking about? What is legal? What is illegal?

TRACEY SHELTON: Well, there’s the convention in, I think, 1993, banned a certain—listed a certain amount of chemical weapons that were banned, the ones that were much more fatal than others. Certain things like tear gas, they have been banned in certain countries, but not under this international convention. So, yeah, I think what—the thing that people, a lot of people, don’t realize is that we’re not just talking about any chemical, but certain chemicals that have been internationally banned and do have a very high—a very high death rate when they’re used.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you to respond to reports about sarin gas being used. First, this is Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari speaking at the United Nations.

AMB. BASHAR JAAFARI: The Syrian government has always emphasized in Damascus, the capital, as well as in here, that it will not use—if it possesses—any chemical weapons against its own people. And I stress this point, which has been highly controversial and manipulated by the enemies of Syria to serve their hidden agendas.

AMY GOODMAN: However, medical personnel, some, are saying the exact opposite. This is Dr. Ubada Alabrash, a Syrian volunteer doctor working for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organization, which runs hospitals for the Syrian opposition.

DR. UBADA ALABRASH: [translated] When wounded people arrived at the crossing, they were suffering from suffocation, breathing difficulties. They were vomiting, and large tears welled up in their eyes. These are symptoms of chemical gas. When the patients arrived after the initial examination, we took blood samples from them.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Ubada Alabrash. Tracey Shelton, your response to what he says?

TRACEY SHELTON: Yeah, I got similar accounts, too, when I—when I arrived at different hospitals, from medical professionals and from rescuers. Yeah, people were definitely suffering from a chemical reaction. But, yeah, as I said, until now it hasn’t actually been identified what chemical it was. So until that’s—until we get someone to officially test these chemicals—and the strange thing is, in the—the people that I spoke with in Afrin actually have the canisters from this attack, but they couldn’t find anyone internationally to test it. So, I think this—I’m not really sure why no one has really stepped up to do that, but I think it’s a very important thing that this chemical being used is identified before we jump to conclusions about anything.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tracey Shelton, let’s turn to one of your video reports from September, “Life and Death in Aleppo.” Here you take viewers on patrol with a group of rebel soldiers, telling the story of Issa, Ahmed and Qasim in the days before and then at the very moment they’re killed in their back-alley post by a tank blast.

TRACEY SHELTON: The rebel fighters manning this two-block stretch of back street are friends. For several weeks, the men of this battalion in Aleppo have made the street their battleground, their social club, their kitchen, their home. Most were civilians before the revolution began last April. Some were teachers, students, laborers. Others joined the opposition after defecting from the government army, like these men.

ISSA: [translated] We have been with the freedom fighters for eight months. Why do we do this? For God, and to overthrow the regime.

TRACEY SHELTON: Some moments, they seem like any group of friends anywhere, chatting, laughing, drinking tea, reminiscing about family and friends back home. But here, all that can change in an instant. In the mornings, they clean up before breakfast. But this morning, they were caught off guard.

REBEL FIGHTER: [translated] Bring an ambulance! Bring an ambulance, for God’s sake! Oh, Mahmoud!

TRACEY SHELTON: Issa, the group’s leader and father of three, his 17-year-old brother Ahmed, and Sheik Mahmoud, father of a newborn baby, were killed in the blast.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is another report by Tracey Shelton of GlobalPost from Syria in September called “Surviving Aleppo.” Here she shows the horrific aftermath of a helicopter bombing attack and goes shoulder to shoulder with those digging through the rubble to find survivors.

TRACEY SHELTON: The Syrian army helicopter bombed this three-story building Monday, leaving rubble crashing down onto two young families.

Men are still searching through the rubble here. So far they’ve found eight bodies: seven young children and their father. They’re still searching for the mother underneath the rubble.

But then, just as all hope seemed lost, a tiny miracle emerged from the destruction: One-year-old Hassan survived without a scratch in a blast that killed his parents, his cousins and all his siblings. As doctors examined him at a neighboring hospital, rescuers described how he was found. His mother had used her body to shelter him from the falling concrete. He was discovered unscathed, still cradled in her lifeless arms.

RESCUER: He stayed for around six hours underground, until we got him out with our simple tools. And thank God he survived.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Tracey Shelton, you’ve spent most of the last year in Syria. You’re now in Turkey. You’ve just come out. Tomorrow is World Press Freedom Day. Can you talk about the dangers of being a journalist, the journalists who have died, and what you think needs to happen?

TRACEY SHELTON: Yeah, it’s definitely difficult to work in Syria. And it is getting harder as the opposition becomes a little—well, the extremist elements are growing. The revolutionary aspects of the revolution are slowly being taken over by other agendas. And, yeah, it’s not as—it was never safe to operate in Syria, but now it’s very difficult to know where the dangers are coming from. But, yeah, so there are a lot of precautions that you need to take. One of my colleagues, who’s been missing for I think five months now, James Foley, and many others, as well, who have been killed, injured, are missing. So, yeah, it’s a difficult place to work and one that requires a lot of planning and a lot of precautions.

AMY GOODMAN: And what needs to happen in Syria?

TRACEY SHELTON: I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is. It’s a—it’s a big mess now. And I think international intervention could have worked maybe a year ago, but now it’s become very complicated. There’s a lot of elements involved. And they’re talking about the possibility of arming the rebels now. Obviously something has to happen as far as—yes, the Syrian regime are killing many people, and this fighting is killing many people. But the answer is very complicated. You have an opposition that is fractionated, and they all have different agendas. They have different—different affiliations, many with outside groups. So, it’s a very complicated question, and I think that even once the regime falls, the fighting is probably not going to stop for quite awhile.

AMY GOODMAN: Tracey Shelton, we want to thank you for being with us, GlobalPost senior correspondent covering Syria and the wider Middle East. She has just returned from Aleppo, Syria, joined us from Antakya, Turkey. Last month, she won a George Polk Award for her coverage of Syria.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it’s the 10th anniversary of the protests that stopped the U.S. Navy from bombing Vieques, an island of Puerto Rico. Stay with us.

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