Chemical Weapons In Syria: A Timeline of Media Reporting



The on-going chemical weapons crisis in Syria has been widely reported, but it is unclear to many when this crisis started and whether something could have been done sooner. Here is a timeline of major events regarding Syria’s use of the internationally banned weaponry and the reaction of states around the world.

August 21, 2012:

President Barack Obama gives his famous “red line” speech regarding the use of banned chemical weapons in Syria.

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” said Obama.

“We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

December 3, 2012:

CNN reports that Syrian forces had began combining chemicals that are used in chemical weapon production, according to a U.S. official.

President Barack Obama gives a speech about the use of the banned weapons in Syria. This is the first U.S. threat of intervention in the Syrian civil-war through military involvement.

“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command — the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable,” Obama said.

March 21, 2013:

Just days after both the Syrian government and rebel forces accused one another of deploying chemical weapons in the town of Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo, on March 19, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has submitted a written letter to the United Nations demanding an independent investigation into the accusations. Multiple members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) have also called for a probe into the allegations.

April 18, 2013:

Britain and France have reported to the U.N. that they have “credible evidence” proving that Syrian forces have use chemical weapons “on more than one occasion since December.”

The report points blame at the Syrian government forces, based on rebel accounts blaming the military. Although they acknowledge that some state forces “may have been exposed” in the chemical attack, the European report claimed that was a “friendly fire” incident in which troops were hit when the shells missed their intended target. Diplomats with knowledge of the situation believe that the Syrian government have used the weapons in rare occasions, “testing the response of the United States and other Western powers.”

After the Syrian request for a U.N. investigation into the attack, the U.N. chief appointed a team of investigators, but they were not allowed access inside the country.

April 23, 2013:

Israel announces that they have found evidence proving the Syrian government has repeatedly used chemical weapons, accusing Assad of testing the reaction of Western powers by crossing President Obama’s “red line.” A military official was vague about the specifics regarding the evidence, but did confirm that the conclusion was drawn from photographs and “direct” findings.

Additionally, when asked by Secretary of State John Kerry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “was not in a position to confirm” the intelligence findings.

The United States replied to the announcement with little enthusiasm, saying that they found the evidence inconclusive due to the lack of physical proof. American intelligence agencies have yet to uncover convincing evidence themselves. President Obama is very cautious regarding pulling the U.S. into an open-ended conflict in the on-going Syrian civil war.

Israeli Brig. Gen. Itai Brun told the Institute for National Security studies that it was quite clear the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, based on photographic proof of Syrians “foaming at the mouth.” He also claimed that the government had used the weapons a handful of other times since then, but “the details and effectiveness of those attacks were sketchier,” according to the NY Times.

Although the U.S. head of state is not fully convinced, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, told participants at a security conference in Tel Aviv that the Syrian government “has increasingly used chemical weapons,” echoing the claims of Britain and France.

April 25, 2013:

AP reports that U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that U.S. intelligence has concluded that Syrian President Assad has used banned chemical weapons twice since March. The evidence indicates Assad’s forces used sarin gas on the two alleged occasions. He claimed the conclusion was reached with “varying degrees of confidence.” He added that the administration and some members of Congress had known this for weeks, but the information is not conclusive enough to warrant U.S. military intervention. Hagel described the attack as “small scale,” and a casualty account was not available.

Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the remarks, also confirming intelligence of the two attacks.

May 2, 2013:

Turkey has added their voice to the group of countries accusing Syrian President Assad of using chemical weapons. Turkish Prime Minister Tayvip Erdogansaid made a statement about the announcement.

“We will discuss the use of chemical weapons during our meeting with President Obama; it’s clear that the Assad regime is using it. The opposition is in control of the region, but Assad is the one using chemical arms, fighter planes and helicopters. These are the final moments of the regime, but we don’t know when it will fall. It’ll happen suddenly.”

May 30, 2013:

The Turkish government has claimed that they have found sarin gas in the homes of suspected Syrian islamist rebels. As reported by, Turkish security forces found a 2kg cylinder with sarin gas. The owners of the homes were members of the Al-Nusra Front, a group associated with al-Qaeda. The group has been referred to has “the most aggressive and successful arm” of the Syrian rebels. The Turkish government allege that the gas was meant to be used in a bomb.

June 4, 2013:

France has confirmed the use of sarin gas in Syria by government soldiers. The government is “certain that sarin gas was used in Syria multiple times and in a localized way,” according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, citing tests in government laboratories. Evidence taken from attack victims concluded with a confirmation of the presence of nerve gas.

June 13, 2013:

The Obama Administration has announced their conclusion that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons against rebel forces. Because of this, they have decided to begin supplying the Syrian rebels with small arms and ammunition for the first time. The U.S. government reached their conclusion after the C.I.A. acquired “blood, urine, and hair samples from two Syrian rebels […] who were in a firefight with Syrian government forces in mid-March” near Damascus. The samples contained evidence that the soldiers were exposed to sarin gas.

June 18, 2013:

The G8 countries, which include the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, and Russia, have released a statement in condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria. However, the statement does not assign blame for the attacks.

“We condemn any use of chemical weapons in Syria and call on all parties to the conflict to allow access to the UN investigating team mandated by the UN Secretary-General, and drawing on the expertise of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and World Health Organisation (WHO), in order to conduct an objective investigation into reports of use of chemical weapons.”

Russia has disputed some of the G8 findings, which indicate Syrian government involvement in the alleged attacks.

July 10, 2013:

The Syrian National Coalition, a group of Syrian opposition groups, has denied Russian allegation that Syrian rebel forces deployed chemical weapons in the March 19 attack near Aleppo.

August 18, 2013:

After months of negotiating, the Syria government has allowed U.N. chemical weapons experts to enter the country with a limited scope investigation. The access was granted 6-months after the alleged attack took place, making it increasingly difficult to find and collect conclusive evidence. Investigators will visit three sites of alleged attacks, including Khan al-Assal (the location of the March 19 attack, located near Aleppo) and two other undisclosed locations.

August 20, 2013:

Videos and reports begin to emerge of an alleged large-scale chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

Although the government denies the attack, the number of dead varies and continues to rise. According to the Washington Post, the Syrian Opposition Coalition puts the number at at least 1,300 casualties. The opposition Damascus Media Office claims the number sits a bit lower at 1,000 dead. But the British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights has only confirmed at least 100 people killed at the time.

According to The Daily Mail, doctors on the scene do not have the right medication or equipment to treat the victims of the attack. “We have been receiving reports that the doctors in the field hospitals do not have the right medication to treat these cases and that they were treating people with vinegar and water,” said Nisreen El-Shamayleh, an Al Jazeera reporter working from the neighboring state of Jordan.

August 21, 2013:

The C.I.A. has verified that “certain types of chemical weapons were moved in advance to the same Damascus suburbs where the attack allegedly took place a week ago.”

Videos of alleged chemical weapons attack victims continue to emerge, showing people suffering of convulsions and other signs of chemical weapon poisoning.

The U.S. Government announces that it has intercepted “panicked” phone calls from a Syrian Ministry of Defense official and a leader of a chemical weapons unit shortly after the attack. American officials are now convinced that the attacks originated from Syrian government soldiers.

The intercepted phone calls in combination with the accounts of local doctors

The White House begins making calls to heads of state and important figures worldwide. According to released documents, President Obama spoke with Candian PM Stephen Harper, UK, PM Cameron, Austrialin PM Rudd, French Pres. Hollande. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with UK Deputy Prime Minister Clegg. Among others, Secretary of State John Kerry made over 30 calls with Middle East and European leaders.

Questions begin circulating about what motivation Assad could have to use the banned weaponry.

“We don’t know exactly why it happened,” said an intelligence official. “We just know it was pretty fucking stupid.”

Among the increase in Western accusations, Russian officials maintained their accusation that rebels committed the attack, blaming the “biased regional media” for jumping to conclusions. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich claimed the alleged chemical weapon attack might be a “a provocation planned in advance.”

“It draws attention to the fact that biased regional media have immediately, as if on command, begun an aggressive information attack, laying all the responsibility on the government.”

“A homemade rocket with a poisonous substance that has not been identified yet – one similar to the rocket used by terrorists on March 19 in Khan al-Assal – was fired early on August 21 [at Damascus suburbs] from a position occupied by the [rebels].”

Lukashevich alleged that the rocket was fired from an area that is under rebel control.

August 22, 2013:

France calls for a “reaction with force” in retaliation against Syria if a chemical attack is confirmed.

August 23, 2013:

Despite claims by other members in the U.S. government, President Obama urges caution about the allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

“What we’ve seen indicates clearly this is a big event, of grave concern, and we are already in communications with the entire international community. We’re moving through the U.N. to try to prompt better action from them, and we’ve called on the Syrian government to allow an investigation of the site because U.N. inspectors are on the ground now. We don’t expect cooperation given their past history,” said Obama. “It is very troublesome.”

The Guardian reports Syrian defectors successfully smuggled at least three victims of the alleged chemical weapons attack into Jordan. Blood and urine samples were taken to determine whether and which chemical weapons was used.

August 24, 2013:

Doctors Without Borders have released a press release stating their on-the-ground findings from the alleged August 21 chemical weapon attack. The document states that the organization has treated over 3000 people in Syria who have signs of toxicological poisoning. It also claims at least 300 died.

“[Local members of the organization] received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.

“Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress”

“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack. However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

The U.S. government has begun preparing for a possible military response. The U.S. Navy already has four destroyers in the Mediterranean, which would allow from a cruise-missile attack if a military response is ordered by President Obama.

Members of government have begun to make their feelings on the potential military action. Rep. Justin Amash comes out against US military intervention without congressional approval.

August 25, 2013:

U.S. representatives continue to share their feelings on military intervention in Syria. Rep. Bob Corker & Rep. Eliot Engel have come out in favor.

“This is not something where opposition forces have contrived something,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) on Fox News Sunday. “I hope the president, as soon as we get back to Washington will ask for authorization from Congress to do something in a very surgical and proportional way.”

“I just think that we have to move and we have to move quickly,” Rep. Engel said. “I do agree with Senator Corker that Congress needs to be involved but perhaps not initially. Perhaps the president could start and then Congress needs to resolve it and ascend to it.”

August 26, 2013:

In a possible precursor to military action, Secretary of State John Kerry held a brief press conference confirming the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. Referring to the attack as “undeniable,” Kerry also said that the Syrian regime attempted to destroy evidence of the chemical shelling and “should shock the conscience of the world.”

“While investigators are gathering additional information on the ground, our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscious and guided by common sense. The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the first hand accounts from the humanitarian organizations on the ground […] these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us are real: that chemical weapons were used in Syria. We know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons,” said Kerry.

The Secretary of State explained to the world how he went back and watch the videos that have been circulating social media online and expressed his disgust and anguish at the thought of a chemical weapons attack.

The Washington Post calls Kerry’s address a “war speech,” getting the US ready for an attack on Syria. The Boston Globe suggests that the “only possible explanation is that it is meant to signal to America’s friends and foes alike that some military action is about to be taken.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed to the media that congress is being contacted and briefed on the situation, supposedly for a possible future vote on military intervention.

The U.N. chemical weapons investigative team were fired upon on their way to an inspection site.

In a Daily Beast interview with Senator John McCain, he blasts President Obama for allowing these chemical weapons attacks to happen, going as far as blaming him for the atrocity.

“General Dempsey has to be embarrassed,” McCain said about Dempsey’s letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliott Engel (D–New York) on August 19, in which Dempsey said the U.S. should not intervene militarily in Syria and that even destroying Assad’s air force was not a good idea.

“Dempsey made an incredible illogical statement and then a few days later we saw a massive use of chemical weapons,” McCain said. “I’m sure that Bashar al-Assad paid attention to the top military man in America’s words that we were not going to get involved.”

“Assad was able to use chemical weapons before and there was no response, and so why not do it again? This should surprise no one,” McCain said. “They viewed that not as a red line but as a green light, and they acted accordingly.”

President Obama has ordered a document be declassified for the public. It would provide legal justification for an attack on Syria.

Britain begins massing forces in their military base in Cyprus.

August 27, 2013:

The world holds its breath as the media begins reporting that Obama could order a Syrian attack “as early as Thursday.”

Discussion begins on whether Obama has the ability or legal precedent to order an attack.

Rep. Justin Amash continues to express his opinion against military intervention in Syria without congressional approval.

Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech confirming the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, making him the highest ranking U.S. government official to confirm the alleged attack.

August 28, 2013:

Syrian residents begin preparing for a seemingly imminent U.S. attack. Reuters reports that people are stocking up on supplies. Other people have begun to flee areas with potential targets for the U.S. Additionally, it is reported that over 15,000 people have crossed into Lebanon through Syria in anticipation of an attack.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirms the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

“This is a clear breach of long-standing international norms and practice… those responsible must be held accountable.”

David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, confirms Syria has used chemical weapons before.

“But what we know is this regime has huge stocks of chemical weapons. We know they have used them on at least 10 occasions prior to this last widescale use.”

Western powers continue to deploy assets to the region. Adding to the existing 4 destroyers off the coast of Syria, the U.S. sent 5 more destroyers are en route, along with one submarine. The UK has also deployed a submarine to the region.

Iran makes its intentions clear regarding a U.S. attack on Syria.

“Any attack on Syria would burn down Israel,” said Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces.

These sentiments were further stressed by an unnamed senior Syrian official:

“If Damascus comes under attack, Tel Aviv will be targeted too and a full-scale war against Syria will actually issue a license for attacking Israel. If Syria is attacked, Israel will also be set on fire and such an attack will, in turn, engage Syria’s neighbors. Thus, a US attack on Syria will herald frequent strikes and attacks on Israel, not just by Damascus and its allies in retaliation, but by extremist groups.

Israel has been in close communication with the President Obama over the current situation regarding Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also made his intentions clear in the event of an attack on Israel.

“The State of Israel is ready for any scenario. We are not part of the civil war in Syria but if we identify any attempt whatsoever to harm us, we will respond and we will respond in strength,” Netanyahu said.

Reports begin to emerge accusing Syrian President Assad’s younger brother, Maher al-Assad, of being responsible for the chemical attacks.

August 29, 2013:

Russia diverted two Navy ships to the Mediterranean. President Vladimir Putin has ordered one missile cruiser and one anti-submarine ship to the region. They will reportedly arrive “over the next few days.”

It is unclear whether this move was due to a regular rotation or in response to the current situation in the region. But “the well-known situation shaping up in the eastern Mediterranean called for certain corrections to the make-up of the naval forces,” said a source in the Russian General Staff.

On the other axis, following yesterday’s seven-vessel increase in the region, the British RAF continues deploying aircraft to their military base on the island state of Cyprus. Britain’s Ministry of Defence has announced it sent six RAF Typhoon jets the Akrotiri air base to protect British interests in the region in the event of a military engagement.

Meanwhile, U.N. chemical weapons experts are entering their third day of inspection of alleged chemical weapons sites in Syria. They are expected to leave on Saturday morning.

President Assad has allegedly moved prisoners from the jails into installations the government believes could be targets of military strikes by western forces.

“There is a lot of fear that prisoners will take the brunt of the attacks, and they have all seen the civilians killed by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said a pro-democracy activist.

The U.S. government announces that President Obama will provide legal justification for an attack when he decides on an appropriate response, reports the BBC.

August 30, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the media in the White House Treaty Signing room today, announcing the declassification of documents displaying proof of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Kerry said that the information being released to the public, while convincing, does not contain all of the details. Those omitted details are being presented to members of Congress.

Here is the document in full text:

Here is a map that has been released to go along with the document:

“Read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources,” Mr. Kerry said. “This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”

Kerry warned the public of the “risk of doing nothing” in regards to Syrian President Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The Secretary of State questioned whether Iran would continue and ramp up their nuclear weapons program if they see that the U.S. does not follow through on their threats.

Here is the full-text of John Kerry’s address:

Meanwhile, the UK government officially rejected a proposal for military action in Syria. Although Prime Minister David Cameron does have the ability to order an attack, he has decided to follow the wishes of parliament, saying he will “act accordingly.”

“I strongly believe in the need for a tough response in the use of chemical weapons but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons,” said Cameron.

Video begins to emerge of an incendiary device attack on a civilian school playground. At least 10 people were killed and many more were injured. The victims include children. The school headmaster spoke with reporters:

“This was the most horrific thing. We have seen images on TV, we have heard many stories, but we have never seen anything like this before. The worst thing in life is watching someone die right in front of you and you can’t do anything. There were dead people, people burning and people running away, but where to? Where would they go? It is not safe anywhere. That is the fate of the Syrian people.”

More than 200 members of the U.S. congress have signed a letter rejecting military action without permission of Congress. Most of the signees are republicans.

China continues to warn the U.S. against attacking Syria.

More reports coming out following claims that Saudi-armed rebels are responsible for the chemical weapons attacks.