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A recent strike in Aleppo led Syrians to think chemical warfare had broken out. But a closer analysis reveals something different.
ALEPPO, Syria — Yasser Younes went to bed around midnight on April 13. When he woke up two days later, he was in a hospital, and his wife and two young children were dead.
Younes, who lives in the Kurdish-controlled neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, said he doesn't remember much from that night. He recalled waking up to a loud noise at 3 a.m. Opening the door, he said he saw smoke. And that was it.
At Avreen Hospital in Afrin, about 40 miles away, the doctors who received the emergency call said they had little doubt about what was going on. Dr. Kawa Hassan prepared his staff to receive 22 patients suffering from conditions he believed were caused by a chemical weapons attack.
“I received the call at 3:30 a.m.,” said Hassan, who has worked as the director of Avreen Hospital for the past eight months. “I had no idea what chemical it might be so we prepared masks and protective clothing. I was scared, not for myself, but for all of Syria. I didn’t think it would come to this.”
A closer analysis, however, raises doubts and highlights the challenge of confirming whether the Syrian government — or anyone else — is using chemical weapons. The reality could have major implications for Syria and beyond, prompting foreign powers to either intervene directly or continue with the status quo.
More from GlobalPost: Complete Coverage from Inside Syria
Looking at video and photos obtained by GlobalPost at the scene, experts say the spent canister found in Younes’ house and the symptoms displayed by the victims are inconsistent with a chemical weapon such as sarin gas, which is known to be in Syria’s arsenal. Sarin is typically delivered using artillery shells or spray tanks, not in the grenade-like device found in this Aleppo attack and in other similar attacks reported in recent days.
While analysts have not been able to identify the canister, they said tear gas, some kind of generated smoke, as well as any number of chemicals found in military munitions and devices, could also have been responsible. Chemicals used for riot control are not prohibited by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
In recent years, in other countries in the Middle East where security forces used tear gas on protesters, witnesses reported seeing victims foam at the mouth, convulse and twitch — the same symptoms seen in the Syrian victims.
The telltale sign of a sarin gas attack is myosis, or constricting of the pupils, and fasciculations, the medical term for tremors. While GlobalPost confirmed that some of the victims in the April 13 attack suffered from tremors, it was unable to confirm any of them had myosis.
Moreover, experts say an attack by sarin gas would cause virtually anyone who had come into contact with the toxin to immediately feel its effects. Exposure to even a very small amount of sarin could be lethal. While there were casualities in the Aleppo attack, most of the victims survived, which would not likely be the outcome of a sarin attack in a confined environment.
“This is a scary thing, there are many people on the ground who are in terror who might understandably make assumptions that are not necessarily accurate,” said Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy at Physicians for Human Rights, a nonprofit that has worked extensively on issues related to chemical weapons. “I think in the actual environment where these weapons might be used there’s fear, as well as a lack of expertise about how to diagnose or identify what’s happening, and people are struggling with that.”
Physicians for Human Rights, which in the late 1980s helped determine that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on Kurds in the country’s north, has developed a series of fact sheets detailing the symptoms associated with the chemical weapons believed to be held by the Syrian government, as well as the best practices for both treating victims and documenting cases. Sirkin said that aside from the immediate humanitarian concern, it is essential to properly collect the evidence.
"We believe it is very important to accurately document and/or