BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces unleashed artillery attacks and air raids in eastern Damascus on Wednesday in a campaign that followed unverified reports of mass deaths in a chemical weapons attack.
Those allegations of gassing civilians – opposition activists claim that 1,100 to more than 1,600 people are dead – dwarfed all previous such accounts in the increasingly bloody civil war.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 647 Syrians were killed Wednesday, and it attributed nearly 590 of those deaths to chemical weapons. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, considered the most authoritative group tracking casualties in the conflict, estimated at least 136 dead from an air assault but didn’t address whether chemical weapons appeared to be involved.
Wednesday’s offensive appeared designed to wipe out recent rebel gains outside the capital, but it was overshadowed by fresh claims from rebel activists that the forces of President Bashar Assad deployed chemical weapons even as international inspectors arrived in his country.
Few reliable details filtered out of the country – more than two years into a civil war – to confirm or refute reports of a chemical attack. Information about any munitions and whether they included nerve or chemical agents couldn’t be confirmed without independent observers in the area that allegedly was attacked.
Instead, scores of amateur videos posted online showed dozens – women, children and men identified as civilians – either dead or in deep respiratory distress and medical crews frantically trying to treat them.
What was clear was that the regime had mounted a major attack on a series of restive, pro-rebel neighborhoods on the eastern outskirts of the capital.
The claims of a widespread chemical weapons attack on a dense urban area came as United Nations inspectors arrived to investigate previous allegations that the regime had used banned chemical weapons earlier this year.
Syrian state media denied Wednesday that chemical weapons had been used.
The U.N. Security Council met in closed session Wednesday to talk about allegations of the world’s largest chemical weapons attack since the 1980s.
Even without confirmation, the reports of chemical weapons use put the U.S. government in an increasingly awkward position over what role it ultimately will play in a seemingly intractable civil war in a volatile region.
A finding that Assad’s military was gassing civilians would be the clearest example yet of a breach of the “red line” that President Barack Obama had warned the Syrian leader not to cross. And it might crank up pressure for more direct military aid to the rebels, loosely knit factions increasingly infiltrated by foreign fighters with links to al Qaida terrorists.
Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the scale of the alleged attack far eclipsed a previous U.S. assessment. Washington earlier had concluded that the regime had conducted only small-scale attacks at different sites, with a total of about 150 victims.
“This would seem to be a major event,” Thielmann said, “but it’s difficult to sort out what allegations are credible and reliable.”
The latest charges imply that the Syrian government deployed banned weapons at the same time that international observers arrived to investigate earlier rebel claims of their use, and longtime observers found the timing nonsensical.