The written news accounts were shocking enough. The video was absolutely horrifying: hundreds of men, women, and far too many children laid out wall to wall on hospital floors, dead, with an occasional survivor twitching madly here or there. Opposition groups contend that early on August 21, Syrian government forces attacked villages to the east of Damascus, using chemical weapons that killed at least hundreds of people. The attacks occurred three days after UN inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate prior reports of chemical weapons use. The White House announced it was “deeply concerned” by reports of chemical weapons attacks and called on the Syrian government to allow UN inspectors to have “immediate access” to affected people and locales. According to the New York Times, the Syrian government vehemently denied that it was behind the attack, and Russia, a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, contended that Syrian rebels had conducted the attack in hopes it would be blamed on the Assad regime. Despite the many questions that surrounded the attack, the footage posted to the Internet made it clear that hundreds had been killed, and that they had not been victims of gunshots, or any other weapon that draws blood.
The Bulletin asked an array of chemical weapons and national security experts to assess the situation in Syria and suggest ways in which the United States and the international community might proceed, in light of what would—if proven true—be the most extensive use of chemical weapons in the Syrian uprising and a major breach of international law. Given the confused situation in Syria, it is perhaps unsurprising that these experts agreed on one thing: A proper response will require verification of the chemical weapons used, and the people who used them.