Syrian rebels. Via Flickr user FreedomHouse

Syrian Rebels Defenseless Against Chemical Attacks

Expert urges U.S. to send gas masks 

On Thursday the White House confirmed what many observers had long feared: the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians in the country’s long-running civil war.

This is not the first time chemical weapons have been used on a modern battlefield. And as in previous gas attacks in Yemen, Iran and Iraq,the victims in Syria are unable to protect themselves. “As far as I understand, both the rebels and Syrian civilians lack chemical defenses,” says Amy Smithson, a fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C.

For that reason, Smithson is calling on Washington to speed gas masks and other protection to the Syrian war zone.

It’s unclear exactly what kinds of chemicals have been deployed in Syria. The U.S., British and French government claim the nerve agent sarin has been used, but Smithson says she is skeptical. “Other toxic chemicals may also be involved because these governments have not been specific about connecting their assertions of chemical weapons use with the individual events where people have showed symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals, such as sarin.”

Nor is it clear how the Syrian government is spreading the agents. “A few video and still photos show something dropped from a helicopter and canisters, but the images are not firmly connected to the release of toxic gas,” Smithson tells Medium. In its chemical attacks against Iran and its own people, the Iraqi government sent jet fighters loaded with gas canisters. For its part, the Syrian air force has been heavily involved in the current fighting.

The types of agents involved and their delivery methods are more than a matter of curiosity. Defenses must be tailored to the particular kind of chemical attack. In any event, Syria rebels and civilians lack any means of protection — a vulnerability Smithson wants to see addressed.

“Better would be to negate Assad’s unconventional military advantage by outfitting Syrian civilians and opposition forces with chemical defenses,” Smithson wrote in an op-ed. “Washington could rally states to equip Syrian doctors with nerve-agent antidotes and opposition soldiers with chemical detectors. Gas masks, which Syrians would need to carry at all times, would need clear Arabic instructions for fitting, wearing and maintaining them.”

But equipping Syrian rebels with chemical defenses could raise the same questions that have complicated foreign efforts to arm rebel fighters with offensive weaponry. It’s unknown who many of the rebels are, what kind of Syria they want to create and what dangers that new Syria might pose to foes and former allies alike.