Divisions of elite Syrian troops led by President Bashar Assad’s brother were likely responsible for the suspected chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb last week that killed more than 1,400 people, according to Syrian opposition activists.
Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, commands the regime’s Republican Guard, the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division and special forces, which are tasked with protecting the regime.
All three divisions are suspected in the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta in the east of Damascus on Aug. 21. Officers in these divisions predominantly belong to the Alawite Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs.
Videos provided by Syrian activists show men wearing red berets, part of the Republican Guard’s uniform, at purported launch sites of the chemical weapons.
Abu Omar, a member of the Damascus Media Office, an opposition group that comprises activists and journalists, filmed from a rooftop less than five miles from the scene of the attack another video that purportedly shows part of the suspected chemical weapons strike.
The rockets that are believed to have carried chemical weapons were fired from the direction in which the Syrian special forces are based, Abu Omar, who used a nom de guerre out of concern for his family’s safety, said in a Skype interview on Friday.
A suspected chemical weapons site is located at Adra, a short distance from where the rockets were launched.
The Obama administration is weighing a punitive military strike against the Assad regime over the use of chemical weapons.
The White House released an assessment on Friday that concluded “with high confidence” that the Assad regime had “carried out a chemical weapons attack,” and that the regime’s chemical weapons personnel had been operating in Adra in the days leading up to the attack. The report is based on human, signals and geospatial intelligence.
“Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21 near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin,” the report says. “On August 21, a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilization of gas masks.”
Adra is home to senior Syrian military personnel, factories and a notorious prison.
Kamal al-Labwani, a member of the Syrian opposition National Coalition’s defense and security committee, spent 10 years — from 2001 to 2011 — locked up at the prison because of his criticism of the Assad regime.
Mr. al-Labwani said the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, that is fighting on the side of the Assad regime, has a large training camp in Adra.
Ghouta lies roughly midway between Adra and Damascus, which are less than 15 miles apart.
“The bombing [of Ghouta] came from the area controlled by Assad’s brother and air force security,” Mr. al-Labwani said in a phone interview from Istanbul on Friday.
Mr. al-Labwani, who has provided U.S. and British intelligence with information on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, said he thinks Al Wahdat Al Khassah — the regime’s special forces — and the Republican Guard are responsible for the chemical weapons attacks.
Syrian opposition activists say it is hard to tell with certainty where the regime stores its chemical weapons.
“They used to store it in the mountains, but [Mr. Assad] has since spread the chemical weapons all over,” said Mr. al-Labwani. He said the regime has mobile “factories” to activate the chemical weapons.
Only a secret group of regime insiders is aware of the location of the regime’s chemical weapons. “Even the people in the [Syrian government] ministries don’t know who these people are or where the chemicals are mixed,” said Sami Ibrahim, a Damascus-based spokesman for the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Mr. Ibrahim said that besides the Aug. 21 attack a series of chemical attacks of lesser degrees of lethality have taken place across Syria, including in the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Idlib. “This indicates that there is a centralized command” behind these attacks, said Mr. Ibrahim.
Syrian opposition sources say the regime used napalm or a napalm-like substance to attack civilians in Aleppo on Monday.
“Assad could have stopped these attacks after the first attack, but this gives a clear indication that there is a green light from the regime,” said Mr. Ibrahim.
Did the order for the Aug. 21 attack come from Mr. Assad?
“It’s probably more accurate to think of the regime as a sort of clique of various influential family as well as security actors,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “So, even if it did not come from Assad himself, even though he is a sort of first among equals, then it still did come technically from the regime. This is a very tight-knit group of people. They don’t always agree about tactical issues but they do agree on broader strategic ones.”
Could the attack have been conducted without Mr. Assad’s knowledge?
“If that were the case it would indicate a very large breakdown in the chain of command on the Syrian government side,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “The president has to approve the use of chemical weapons, either personally or through one of his official delegates. It is very unlikely that there were some sort of groups that were able to get their hands on chemical weapons who were able to launch the attacks without the senior-most leadership finding out about it.”
Western analysts and Syrian opposition activists are unable to say with certainty whether the Assad regime still controls its chemical weapons stockpiles, which include sarin gas, mustard gas and the nerve agent VX.
Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, says its the regime’s responsibility to control these stockpiles.
“President Obama was very clear that it is the Syrian regime’s responsibility to maintain control over its chemical weapons, and if its lost control of its generals’ use of chemical weapons, that is just as bad, frankly,” said Mr. Shapiro.