WASHINGTON -- Even as President Barack Obama insisted Tuesday that the United States knows very little about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, dueling reports surfaced of a new chemical attack in a town near the Turkish border, demonstrating how complex the issue can be.
The news came out of Saraqib, a town of 30,000 about 20 miles from the Turkish border in northern Syria. The area has seen clashes between Syrian rebels and regime forces for the past year. This time, at least one person died and dozens were injured after, reports from both sides say, people were attacked with a white powder.
Mufid Abu Sair, 32, who said he works as a medical aide in Saraqib, said he saw what took place when opposition fighters were attacking a nearby government base.
I was watching from about two kilometers (more than one mile) away, he said. A helicopter went up and dropped white bags like balloons, with a weight in them, on the southwestern area of town. There were eight bombs, small and large, weighing from maybe one kilogram (2.2. pounds) to eight kilograms (18 pounds). They put up a lot of white dust and smoke.
Sair was interviewed at a hospital in Reyhanli, Turkey, where many of those sickened were taken for treatment. The hospital declined to provide details of who was being treated and for what.
An ambulance driver from Saraqib who had also made the trip to the hospital in Reyhanli said that he did not see what happened but did see the results. He spoke by phone from inside the hospital because, he said, Turkish authorities would not allow him to leave and were keeping the patients from Saraqib in isolation.
People who breathed in the material were suffocating, falling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, with red eyes, vomiting, said the driver, who used the nickname Abu Ali. I saw about 30 cases.
Meanwhile, Bashar Jaafari, Syrias ambassador to the United Nations, claimed that what took place was an attempt by terrorist groups to frame the Syrian regime. According to news accounts, he said the attackers spread seemingly the contents of plastic bags containing a kind of powder which must be most probably a chemical material.
An account from Syrias official SANA news agency offered a similar version. Terrorists threw unknown powder in the face of a number of citizens . . . to accuse the army of using chemical weapons against citizens, the news agency reported, citing an unnamed official. The powder caused suffocation, shiver and respiratory symptoms among the citizens, the news agency said.
But even when the narratives agree that a white powder was used against people who suffered because of it the information is hardly conclusive.
Chemical weapons experts said that based on the reports, it was difficult to know what the chemical might have been. They said there is no lethal agent that works as a white powder. If the descriptions are correct, they said a number of irritants might fit: phosgene oxime, which can burn the skin and irritate the eyes; adamsite, a World War I-era weapon that causes vomiting but is considered obsolete now; and a powder version of CS gas (commonly known as tear gas).
Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert and former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, noted that dropping powder in plastic bags is a really inefficient delivery system.