The Syrian government agreed yesterday to cease hostilities in the area while the team goes in and the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said inspectors were “preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities” on the outskirts of the capital.
The attack on Wednesday has galvanised international calls for action against the government of President Bashar Al Assad. Rebels say as many as 1,300 people were killed. One aid agency says thousands were affected and 355 died.
Amid universal acceptance that a chemical nerve agent has been used but disagreement over who used it, there were indications from Damascus that some of the army officers involved had tried to distance themselves from what happened, and insisted they were not told the rockets they were firing were loaded with toxins.
“We have heard from people close to the regime that the chemical missiles were handed out a few hours before the attacks,” said a source from a well-connected family, who has contacts with both the opposition and regime loyalists.
“They didn’t come from the ministry of defence but from air force intelligence, under orders from Hafez Maklouf . The army officers are saying they did not know there were chemical weapons. Even some of the people transporting them are saying they had no idea what was in the rockets – they thought they were conventional explosives.”
Hafez Maklouf, Mr Al Assad’s cousin, commands the department of General Intelligence, a powerful and feared intelligence unit.
Another account of what may have taken place has been put forward by the opposition Syrian National Coalition, based on a timeline from residents inside the affected areas and information collected from sources inside the regime who leak information to the rebels.
The SNC said rockets loaded with chemicals were delivered to General Tahir Hamid Khalil, and were later launched from a regime army base housing the 155 brigade.
After a night of fierce fighting on Tuesday in an area on the edge of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta – once known for its clean natural water and lush orchards – regime troops moved back, leaving only aircraft overhead, the SNC said.
At 2.30am on Wednesday, regime forces under the command of Gen Ghassan Abbas began launching the rockets, 16 of which were aimed at the eastern suburbs of Damascus, and hit Zamalka and Ain Tarma, densely populated areas in the Eastern Ghouta.
As opposition emergency services responded to those initial chemical attacks, rockets armed with high explosive warheads were fired into the same area, hitting ambulance teams as they tried to help victims of the chemical strikes.
At 4.21am, 18 more missiles were fired into eastern Damascus by troops loyal to Mr Al Assad, the SNC said. Another two missiles were aimed at Moadamiya, to the south-west of Damascus, an area known locally as the Western Ghouta.
By 6am, dozens of people from Moadamiya had been taken to a local field hospital suffering from the effects of exposure to a still unidentified poison gas.
At least five poison gas rockets were fired, according to the SNC, four landing in the Eastern Ghouta and one in Moadamiya. Strong winds pushed the gases out from their impact area in Zamalka across to Erbin, a neighbouring district, where more people died. According to the SNC’s account, loyalist forces close to the attack area were issued orders from a “high level” to wear gas masks in anticipation of the attacks.
Syrian state media and the insurgents have continued to wage a war of words over the chemical attacks.
After initially denying chemical agents had been released by either side, the Syrian authorities are now vigorously blaming rebel forces.
The rebels have posted videos online of hollow rocket tubes found in the eastern suburbs where the attacks took place. The missile casings, about two metres long, appear to match those used in previous strikes by regime forces.
Russia, a close ally of Mr Al Assad, said it welcomed the decision by Damascus to allow the UN inspection. The Russian government, like Syria’s other close ally Iran, does not dispute that chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb. They blame anti-government insurgents for the attacks.
In Washington, a US official said “there is very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians.
The Obama administration earlier accused the Assad government of delaying UN inspectors to allow the evidence to degrade.
The agreement by Syria to permit UN investigators to carry out a first-hand examination of a chemical weapons attack came as international pressure built for a retaliatory strike against the Assad regime. The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said yesterday that the US military, which is repositioning its forces in the eastern Mediterranean to give President Obama the option for an armed strike, was ready to act if asked.
On Saturday, the humanitarian aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières said 3,600 patients displaying “neurotoxic symptoms” had been admitted to Syrian hospitals it supports, and 355 of those patients had died.
This post first appeared in print in The National.