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Car bombs kill 47 in Tripoli as Obama calls developments in Syria 'grave concern' (LIVE BLOG)

Twin car bombs hit the Lebanese port city of Tripoli on Friday, while three victims of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria were smuggled to Jordan to test their blood and urine.

GLOBALPOST LIVE BLOG: SYRIA'S DARKEST DAYS AND TROUBLE IN LEBANON 

UPDATE: 8/23/13 4:25 PM ET

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UPDATE: 8/23/13 4:15 PM ET

Three victims of Syrian attack smuggled to Jordan

The Syrian opposition told Reuters earlier that samples from the alleged chemical weapons attack had been smuggled out of Syria.

The Guardian reports that at least three victims of the attack were smuggled to Jordan where samples of their blood and urine would help determine whether chemical weapons were used in the attack which the State Department estimates killed between 1,000 and 1,800 Syrian civilian men, women and children.

A team of UN chemical weapons inspectors is less than 10 miles from the site of the attack, but has so far been denied access by the Syrian government, despite international calls, including Russia's, for Assad to allow the UN to investigate.

"Sources inside rebel-held districts said an active network of defectors, some of whom had fled the Syrian military's chemical warfare division, were helping to smuggle biological samples from the scenes of the attack to Jordan. At least three more victims suffering mild effects of gassing will be transferred to Jordan in the next few days," the Guardian reported.

"The samples being sourced are biopsies of livers and spleens from fatalities, as well as blood and urine from survivors."

Read the full report at the Guardian.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 4:00 PM ET

Condemnation of Lebanon bombings

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "strongly" condemned the two car bombs which have left at least 42 dead and more than 500 injured.

Ban also "calls on all Lebanese to exercise restraint, to remain united, and to support their state institutions, particularly the security forces, in maintaining calm and order in Tripoli and throughout the country," according to a statement released by the UN, Al Jazeera reported.

Susan Rice, the US National Security Advisor, also condemned the bombings and extended condolences to Lebanon for "the loss of innocent life."

The European Union's foreign affairs chief, France and the UK have also issued condemnations.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 3:35 PM ET

Syria's war shatters a divided Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon is no stranger to bombs.

But in the past, explosions were normally used to carry out targeted assassinations.

Today’s twin car bombings in Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli, detonated around 2 p.m. outside two popular Sunni mosques where worshippers had gathered for Friday prayers, killing 42 and injuring at least 500 more.

The attack appeared to target civilians of a particular identity — Islam’s Sunni sect — just eight days after a car bomb killed 30 in a predominantly Shia neighborhood in south Beirut, where support for the Shia militant group Hezbollah is strong.

On Friday, there were fears Lebanon could be descending into the kind of tit-for-tat sectarian violence common in Iraq.

“Lebanon stands at a crossroads with the threat of civil war looming,” said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University.

A Tripoli-based journalist, Ibrahim Chalhoub, said Sunni gunmen had deployed around the city.

The mosques hit were where two of Tripoli’s most prominent Salafi, or hardline Sunni, preachers — Sheikh Bilal Baroudi and Sheikh Salem al-Rifai — give their sermons. The sheikhs, who are said to have survived the bombings, strongly support Syria’s rebels and are known for their anti-Hezbollah rhetoric.

Geographically, culturally and politically close to Syria, many of Tripoli’s residents identify closely with Syria’s Sunni-majority rebels who are fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Shia offshoot Alawite sect.

In Tripoli’s Sunni neighborhoods, posters of slain fighters hang from buildings alongside Islamist and Free Syrian Army flags.

Read the full report from Josh Wood.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 3:20 PM ET

This time it's different

The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins writes:

"Syrian opposition groups say that Assad has used chemical weapons as many as thirty-five times, often with low concentrations of sarin gas. In each case, the attack appears to have been intended to cause as much panic as death, and without provoking a Western response. The result — carefully calculated by the Assad regime, no doubt — is that the death toll from chemical weapons has been kept low."

However, Wednesday's alleged attack was something new and different, apparently with higher concentrations of gas and much higher casualties.

The Syrian Support Group said two-thirds of those killed were women and children.

Meanwhile, the group Physicians for Human Rights released a statement after its experts examined footage coming out of Syria:

"The videos show multiple scenes with dozens of casualties with no apparent signs of trauma, injury, or bleeding. In some cases, apparent survivors are experiencing agonal breathing, which is a sign of imminent respiratory failure and death, as well as copious oral and nasal secretions and vomiting.

This medical evidence is consistent with reports by Syrian medical sources describing a pattern of symptoms, including acute respiratory distress, pupillary constriction, excessive oral and nasal secretions and vomiting, all of which suggest exposure to an organophosphate such as sarin.

While we can’t speak about the authenticity of the videos, the consistency of the clinical evidence emerging from these videos in multiple locations indicates the use of a chemical weapon or another lethal agent."

UPDATE: 8/23/13 2:50 PM ET

Initial intelligence assessment: Assad's forces did use chemical weapons

US and European security forces spoke to Reuters anonymously, saying the United States and its allies' intelligence agencies have made a preliminary assessment that Syrian government did indeed use chemical weapons in the attack on Wednesday.

The assessment also said it was likely the attack had high-level approval from the Assad regime.

Reuters wrote, "The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, cautioned that the assessment is preliminary and, at this stage, they are still seeking conclusive proof, which could take days, weeks or longer to gather."

Meanwhile, the UN team of investigators within Syria has not been given the green light from Kevin Kennedy, who heads the UN Department of Safety and Security, according to Foreign Policy.

"It's an active war zone in Damascus," Kennedy said. "I was there a few months ago: you hear every day impacts, shells, there might be 10 in a day, you might hear 80 in a day. You can see airstrikes, you can see artillery. You get shot at, I was only there for 3 and half days as a visitor and my car was shot, we were shot at twice."

Read the full report at Foreign Policy.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 2:30 PM ET

US intelligence detected activity near Syrian chemical weapons sites

CBS News' David Martin cited administration officials who said US intelligence detected activity near Syrian chemical weapons sites before Wednesday's attack in the eastern Ghouta region.

The report says:

"Similar activity has been detected before, and the assumption then was that the Syrians were moving things around for security reasons. Now, according to the officials, the most recent activity, which was detected last week, is seen as possible preparation for Wednesday's attack."

"The officials also said U.S. intelligence agencies are now leaning to the conclusion that Syria did use chemical weapons."

Read the full report at CBS News.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 2:10 PM ET

Smuggling evidence out of Syria

Badr Jamous, the Syrian National Coalition's secretary general, said members of the Syrian opposition had smuggled samples from victims of Wednesday's alleged chemical weapons attack out of the country.

"We took them and sent them outside Syria," he told Reuters in Istanbul.

A team of UN chemical weapons investigators are already in the country, and the UN said its envoy for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, was expected to arrive in Syria on Saturday.

Reuters also reported that Assad's opponents smuggled tissue samples to UN inspectors, though it's unclear if that was what the SNC's secretary general meant when he said "outside Syria."

Meanwhile, Iran, which remains Assad's ally, denied claims that the Syrian regime was responsible for any chemical attacks.

"If such a thing (a chemical attack) is true, it has definitely been carried out by terrorists and takfiri groups that have shown in practice that they do not refrain from any crime," Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told his Turkish counterpart, according to Tehran Times.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 1:55 PM ET

Syria's war has made 1 million children refugees

The Syrian conflict hit a grim benchmark on Friday, by making one million children refugees and internally displacing two million.

"This one millionth child refugee is not just another number. This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend," said the head of UN children's agency UNICEF, Anthony Lake, said in a statement.

"What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and wellbeing of a generation of innocents," Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said.

Most of the refugees from Syria have fled to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

The UN Refugee Agency has been tracking the situation:

UPDATE: 8/23/13 1:30 PM ET

Whiplash in the Middle East

Here's the latest from the UN:

Israel has also become involved in the situation in Lebanon, thanks to reports that its northern border was attacked by an Al Qaeda-linked group in southern Lebanon.

The Israel Defense Forces retaliated against Lebanon overnight, hitting empty structures belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

GlobalPost's Noga Tarnopolsky untangles the latest between Israel and Lebanon.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 12:45 PM ET

No 'boots on the ground' for US in Syria

While Obama told CNN that the latest developments in Syria are of "grave concern," it doesn't herald US troops on the ground.

What are the other military options for the West?

Agence France-Presse cites experts saying there are three main options: buffer zones, a no-fly zone, and destroying or securing chemical weapons stores.

However, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Obama's adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already warned Congress that none of these options would be easy.

Read more on Dempsey's warning here.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post offers four non-military options: more humanitarian aid, sharing intelligence with rebels, covertly detering Syrian air power, and making up with the Assad regime's closest allies, Russia and Iran.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 12:35 PM ET

Syrian opposition promises safe passage for UN

As the UN secretary general's envoy for disarmament, Angela Kane, heads to Damascus, the Syrian opposition has said it will ensure the sage passage of UN chemical weapons inspectors to inspect the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack in the eastern Ghouta region.

"We will ensure the safety of the U.N. team ... It is critical that those inspectors get there within 48 hours," Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, said at a news conference in Istanbul, according to Reuters.

Russia's foreign ministry earlier said, "Much needed signals from the opposition, including its readiness to guarantee the safety and effective work of UN experts on territory controlled by militants, unfortunately are not forthcoming."

"It is directly preventing an objective investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria," the statement continued.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 12:10 PM ET

US intelligence on Syria

CBS News tweeted this:

A spokesperson for the UN secretary general said it is their intention to "conduct a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation" into allegations of chemical weapons use in the attack that killed anywhere between 1,000 and 1,800 people including children by State Department estimates.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 12:05 PM ET

Death toll in Tripoli rises to 42

Lebanese health ministry officials reported that the number of people killed in the blasts in Tripoli have increased to 42.

Sunni cleric Sheikh Salem Rafei, believed to be the target of the attack on one of the mosques, was unharmed, the BBC reported.

Rafei, who opposes the Shia militant group Hezbollah, has been known to urge Lebanese youth to fight alongside Syrian rebels.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 12:00 PM ET

Tripoli explosions targeted anti-Hezbollah, anti-Assad clerics

The Associated Press reports that the explosions in Tripoli apparently targeted Sunni mosques, which were home to clerics who opposed Hezbollah and Syrian President Assad.

"Friday's blasts mark the first time in years that such explosions have targeted Sunni strongholds and were bound to raise sectarian tensions in the country to new levels. It was also the most powerful and deadliest in Tripoli since the end of the civil war," the AP said.

"An official said one of the blasts exploded outside the Taqwa mosque, the usual place of prayer for Sheik Salem Rafei, a Salafi cleric opposed to Hezbollah, which holds sway in much of the country."

This CCTV footage purportedly shows the moment of one of the blasts in Tripoli:

Reuters' video report shows the fiery aftermath:

Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah acknowledged in April that his group's members were actively fighting alongside Assad's troops.

Hezbollah's help was perhaps instrumental in Syrian troops retaking the rebel-held Qusayr in the spring.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 11:40 AM ET

Obama has called the attack a "big event of grave concern," but now what?

Jean MacKenzie writes about Obama's stance on Syria:

Obama’s caught in the gap — now growing to a chasm — between his rhetorical flourishes and the stark pragmatism of his policies. Analysts say that's a result of his pursuing a pragmatic policy of defending US interests as he understands them.

At the moment, the president and his military advisers see little to be gained in an active intervention in Syria, no matter how horrific the scenes of carnage that appear on Americans’ television screens.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid this out in a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Engel had requested an analysis of possible options for punishing the Syrian regime.

“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Dempsey wrote. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

Critics point out that Obama’s overly cautious approach has undermined US credibility in the region and robbed it of any real influence over the horrors taking place in both Egypt and Syria.

Read more: Syria and the world according to Obama

UPDATE: 8/23/13 11:20 AM ET

Chemical weapons would be "crime against humanity": UN

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria "very alarming and shocking."

Speaking in Seoul, Ban said:

"Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law. Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator."

"This is a grave challenge to the entire international community — and to our common humanity.

"There is no time to waste."

"I can think of no good reason why any party — either government or opposition forces — would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter."

According to Agence France-Presse, Ban instructed his envoy for disarmament affairs to travel to Damascus immediately.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 11:15 AM ET

Russia doubts Western claims on Syria attack

While the UK's Foreign Secretary Hague said Assad's regime was most likely responsible for the attack in Syria, Russia, unsurprisingly, has taken a different line.

"Against the background of another anti-Syrian wave of propaganda, we believe calls from some European countries to apply pressure on the UN Security Council and already now take a decision on the use of force are unacceptable," said the Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday, according to Agence France-Presse.

Russia said it has encouraged the Syrian government to cooperate with a UN team already in Damascus on investigating Wednesday's attack, but blamed rebels for blocking access to the site.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 11:00 AM ET

UK Foreign Secretary Hague blames Assad for Syria attack

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague called the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria a "horrible atrocity" and while conceding that the priority was to establish facts on the ground, he said chances that the attack was perpetrated by the opposition were "vanishingly small."

"I know that some people in the world would like to say that this is some kind of conspiracy brought about by the opposition in Syria," Hague said on Friday. "I think the chances of that are vanishingly small and so we do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime."

Watch his entire statement at the Guardian.

UPDATE: 8/23/13 10:40 AM ET

US embassy in Lebanon condemns bombings

The US embassy in Lebanon called for calm and restraint after twin explosions hit the city of Tripoli.

"The U.S. Embassy strongly condemns today’s bombings at the al-Taqwa and al-Danawi mosques in Tripoli, Lebanon," the embassy said in a statement.

Jeff Neumann, a Beirut-based journalist, linked to this video. GlobalPost was not able to independently verify it:

UPDATE: 8/23/13 10:15 AM ET

Car bombs in Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon — At least two explosions hit Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli on Friday, witnesses said.

Both blasts took place near mosques just as Muslims were exiting midday prayers. The first hit near the Taqwa Mosque, while the other took place near the Salam Mosque, local television network al-Jadeed reported.

The latest figures on casualties from health ministry officials showed at least 27 people were killed and more than 350 were wounded in the blasts.

Ambulances reportedly rushed to the sites of the explosions, at al-Taqwa mosque in Tripoli's Abu Ali square, and outside the al-Salam mosque in the central Mina area. Both mosques are Sunni, according to the AP.

Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star reported that the cause of the explosions was two car bombs, citing the health minister.

"It was as if there was an earthquake: the whole city seemed to be shaking," Nada Fallah told The Daily Star.

Speaking from Tripoli, a Syrian refugee living with family nearby to the site of one of the explosions told GlobalPost he witnessed the destruction.

"I just left the scene because there was a lot of shooting so I ran away. The army was shooting in the air. A lot of armed [civilians] people in the street. All the roads are blocked now," he said.

"I saw everything. It is very bad. A lot of cars and buildings destroyed. Many people were coming out of the mosque from praying and the car exploded. They are still searching for people in the rubble until now."

The witness added that the impact from the blast was massive. "My cousin has a flower shop. It is very far from the blast. All the glass is broken."

The streets are now empty, "aside from armed gangs," he said. "All the people are hiding in their houses."

Photos posted on social media showed large clouds of smoke rising above the city:

The blasts come hours after Israel said its air force had bombed a "terrorist site" in northern Lebanon in response to cross-border rocket fire. 

Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militant organization designated as a terrorist group by many countries, condemned the explosions Friday.

"These twin terrorist explosions are part of a criminal plan aiming to plant the seeds of strife between Lebanese and drag them into fighting under the banner of confessionalism and sectarianism," Hezbollah said, according to The Daily Star.

Sectarian fighting tends to flare up in Lebanon every few weeks, but has intensified in the time since the Syrian civil conflict began. Friday's explosions took an unusually heavy toll.

UPDATE: 8/22/13 4:40 PM ET

US holds flurry of meetings on Syria

While the United States said it is still unable to "conclusively determine" that chemical weapons were used in the attack that killed hundreds of Syrians in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, Secretary of State John Kerry held seven phone calls with other foreign ministers and attended a national security council meeting, the Guardian reported.

By Washington's estimates, the death toll from the attack in Syria lies between 1,000 and 1,800.

With the latest grim reports, it's hard to remember a Syria from before the war.

We forget how placid and whole, how everyday, a country seemed once upon a time.

Aside from the more than 100,000 lives that have been lost since March 2011, there has been staggering damage to Syria's infrastructure, economy and cultural heritage.

Emily Lodish offers glimpse at Syria before the fall, when hot-air balloons instead of bombs sailed overhead.

The historic city of Aleppo with its landmark citadel, March 17, 2006. (Ramzi Haidar/Getty Images)

UPDATE: 8/22/13 2:10 PM ET

Chemical weapons attack would be "outrageous and flagrant escalation": State Dept

US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that if the alleged chemical weapons attack on Wednesday was confirmed, it would be an "outrageous and flagrant escalation," according to the BBC's Mark Mardell.

Psaki said the US was focused on confirming facts surrounding the incident.

UPDATE: 8/22/13 2:00 PM ET

Chemical weapons were used in Damascus attack, says Israel

GlobalPost's Noga Tarnopolsky reports on the situation from Jerusalem:

The apparent nerve gas attack leaves Israel in a quandary it hoped to avoid, in which it confronts a possible chemical war on its northern border while remaining tangential to the international arena in which the Syria discussions are taking place.

Throughout the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, Israel has warned western countries about the potential danger of unsupervised Syrian chemical weapons stores, including sarin nerve gas and VX, a lethal agent Syria reportedly attempted to produce some 20 years ago.

With the number of possible victims ranging from about 150 to over a thousand, Israel Army Radio on Thursday broadcast the testimony of a Syrian doctor, speaking on an Arabic television channel, who said that he had seen at least 1000 dead just in his hometown of Zamalka.

The event occurred as UN chemical weapons inspectors were in Damascus, a situation deemed "absurd" by Netnayahu, who confirmed numerous previous reports that the inspectors are being "prevented from reaching the afflicted areas by the Syrian regime."

Read the full report: Israel: Chemical weapons were used in Damascus attack

UPDATE: 8/22/13 12:35 PM ET

Israel's Netanyahu calls reports of chemical attack "terribly disturbing"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday:

"The reported use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians is terribly disturbing."

"If verified, it will be a horrible addition to the roster of tragic crimes committed by the Syrian regime against the people of Syria."

"It is absurd that the UN investigators, who are right now in Damascus to verify use of chemical weapons, are prevented from reaching the afflicted areas by the Syrian regime."

"Syria has become Iran's testing ground, and Iran is closely watching whether and how the world responds to the atrocities committed by Iran's client state Syria and by Iran's proxy Hezbollah against innocent civilians in Syria."

Meanwhile, the UN has formally asked the Syrian government for access to the site of the alleged attack.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked for inspectors "presently in Damascus, to be granted permission and access to swiftly investigate the incident," though BBC News points out there is no indication so far that Assad would allow this.

Wariness and apathy seems to have already set in among those near the attack site.

"We are 7 kms away, just a 5-minute car ride from where they are staying," activist Bara Abdelrahman told Reuters.

"We're being exterminated with poison gas while they drink their coffee and sit inside their hotels."

UPDATE: 8/22/13 12:00 PM ET

And the fight goes on...

While the West's eyes have been riveted on the horrific attack in the eastern Ghouta region of Syria, the fighting rages between government forces and rebels.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces continued a military offensive on eastern Damascus Thursday, bombing areas which were under rebel control.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said government warplanes conducted air raids on suburbs of the capital Damascus, according to the Associated Press.

This video, unverified, purports to show bombardment of rebel held areas of Damascus:

UPDATE: 8/22/13 11:30 AM ET

The red line has already been crossed, but...

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, US officially anonymously said they do believe what happened in Syria on Wednesday was a chemical weapons attack.

A senior administration official told The Journal, "There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack — clearly by the government."

After repeated warnings that the use of chemical weapons was a red line that would draw serious consequences, the Obama administration is struggling to outline what exactly those consequences will be.

One sign that not much will change comes from the top US military leader.

General Martin Dempsey, the US president's chief military adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said military intervention would leave the United States stuck in another quagmire.

In a letter from Aug. 19 obtained by the Associated Press, Dempsey wrote to Rep. Eliot Engel:

"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides."

"It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."

UPDATE: 8/22/13 9:25 AM ET

"Houses full of dead people"

As calls for an investigation continue, bodies are still being found on the outskirts of Damascus, where the alleged chemical weapons attack took place, according to a spokesman for the Syrian opposition.

"We expect the number (of dead) to grow because we just discovered a neighbourhood in Zamalka where there are houses full of dead people," said Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition.

A Free Syrian Army spokesman said 1,729 deaths were documented from Wednesday, adding that another 6,000 people had breathing problems, according to the UK's Channel 4 News.

The estimates still range widely, from 500 to more than 1,300.

UPDATE: 8/22/13 8:05 AM ET

Thirty-five against two?

A total of 35 members of the UN Security Council have called for the UN team already in Syria to be dispatched immediately to the scene of yesterday's alleged attack, the BBC reports.

Leading the charge is France, whose foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has urged the international community to respond "with force." (He clarified that he didn't necessarily mean sending in troops, but urged the West to take a stronger position than any it has before.) If Bashar al-Assad's government refuses to grant UN inspectors access, Fabius said, "it means they've been caught red-handed."

Standing in the way of a "forceful" UN response are Russia and China who, according to Reuters' diplomatic sources, forced the Security Council to scrap the original draft of its statement on Syria because the wording was too strong.

UPDATE: 8/22/13 4:50 AM ET

Iran defends Syrian government  

There's no way Syria's government would have fired chemical weapons on its own people, Iran's foreign minister has claimed. 

Iran is Syria's closest regional ally, and has vigorously defended President Bashar al-Assad and his forces from the many serious allegations against them. So it's not really a surprise that today, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian news agency IRNA:

"If the information concerning the use of chemical weapons is accurate, very definitely they were used by terrorist groups... who have shown they will not hold back from committing any crime.

"With United Nations inspectors now in Damascus and the Syrian government in the process of driving the terrorists back, why would it commit such an act?"

Zarif said Tehran "vigorously condemns any use of chemical weapons," while accusing the rebels of having "every interest in aggravating and internationalising the crisis."

His comments seem to echo the suggestion from Russia — another Assad ally — that yesterday's shocking reports were a "premeditated provocation" timed to coincide with the UN team's visit.

UPDATE: 8/22/13 4:30 AM ET

Shelling continues in Damascus  

Syrian government forces are still bombarding the same rebel-controlled areas of eastern Damascus allegedly hit yesterday with poison gas, opposition activists say today, though this time they report that the weapons fired are non-chemical.

According to Reuters:

In Ghouta on Thursday, rockets fired from multiple launchers and heavy mortar rounds hit the neighborhoods of Jobar and Zamalka, which are on the eastern outskirts of the capital, the activists said. [...]

Fadi al-Shami of the Tarhrir al-Sham Brigade, which operates in the eastern Ghouta region, said scattered fighting was taking place along the Jobar-Zamalka axis and that opposition forces have moved closer to loyalist lines, partly to be in safer positions in case of another chemical attack. 

Read all the latest news from the wires here.

UPDATE: 8/22/13 2:30 AM ET

Human Rights Watch: Witness accounts 'consistent with use of chemical nerve agent' 

New York-based Human Rights Watch has been interviewing residents and doctors in Ghouta in a bid to gather more information on whatever happened there Wednesday. In a press release, the group doesn't give a precise figure but states that "several hundred" were killed and hundreds more injured.

HRW remains cautious about calling it a chemical weapon attack, but says that eyewitness accounts appear to support that view. According to their statement:

Two doctors told Human Rights Watch that affected people consistently showed symptoms including suffocation; constricted, irregular, and infrequent breathing; muscle spasms; nausea; frothing at the mouth; fluid coming out of noses and eyes; convulsing; dizziness; blurred vision; and red and irritated eyes and pin-point pupils. These symptoms are consistent with nerve agent poisoning. 

Further investigation is needed and should be carried out by the UN, HRW said. "If the Syrian government has nothing to hide it should let the inspectors visit the sites of the reported chemical attacks immediately while evidence can still be collected," said the group's acting Middle East director, Joe Stork. 

Read HRW's full statement here.

UPDATE: 8/22/13 1:55 AM ET

UN Security Council: 'There must be clarity'

The Security Council held an emergency, closed-door meeting Wednesday at the request of the UK, France and other member states. 

Possibly restrained by the influence of China and Russia — the Syrian government's veto-wielding allies — the council stopped short of explicitly demanding a UN investigation into the reports of a chemical weapons attack.

"There is a strong concern among council members about the allegations and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened and the situation must be followed closely," said Argentina's ambassador to the UN, Maria Cristina Perceval, according to Reuters.

The council "welcomed" UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's calls for an inquiry, however. 

Ban's deputy, Jan Eliasson, said UN officials were already talking to the Syrian government about gaining access to the site where the latest attack allegedly took place. If the opposition's claims are confirmed, he said, the incident would represent a "serious escalation" in the two-year conflict, with "grave human consequences."

UPDATE: 8/21/13 5:30 PM ET

Record of a tragedy? 

While investigators still seek to gain access to the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack, the unverified photographs and video footage that pour out of Syria are the only evidence the international community has of an tragedy taking place.

Warning: The following photos will be disturbing to some readers and include graphic content such as dead bodies.

Michael Weiss is a contributor to The Atlantic and Foreign Policy:

The Atlantic Wire has a thorough compilation of the visual evidence so far.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 4:50 PM ET

There is international outcry, but will there be action?

The Guardian noted that the United Nations' hands may be tied by Assad's close ally Russia. The Syrian regime continues to call reports of the alleged attack "completely baseless" and Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman called it the incident a "provocation."

"Against a background of long-standing divisions over Syria, the "big five" permanent, veto-wielding members of the council may struggle to respond to what was being described as the worst case of the use of chemical weapons since the Iraqi attack on Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988."

The big five in this case being, of course, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.

The United States, France and Britain already concluded in June that Assad's regime had "probably" used chemical weapons on previous occasions. That conclusion led to the EU lifting an arms embargo, theoretically allowing weapons to flow to Syrian rebels.

The United States said it would begin sending small arms to rebels, despite rebels saying small arms would be of no use.

The Washington Post outlined five reasons the US might not act on Syria:

1) There is little reward in Obama's domestic climate for acting in Syria

2) Deposing Assad would make a negotiated settlement harder

3) The US' goal in Syria is stability, not escalation

4) The rebels fighting against Assad might include extremists

Read the full article at The Post.

In light of the risks and atrocities, should the US intervene? Weigh in on the GlobalPost poll.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 4:05 PM ET

What do the experts say?

While a UN team of chemical weapons investigators negotiates to gain access to the site, experts examining the photographs and video footage are drawing conclusions that the attack in the East Ghouta region may indeed have been a chemical weapons attack.

Gwyn Winfield, editor of a trade journal on unconventional weapons called CRBNe World, said, "No doubt it's a chemical release of some variety — and a military release of some variety," according to Foreign Policy.

"There's no smoking gun here, but it's all consistent with nerve gas exposure," a US intelligence official told Foreign Policy. "This video is consistent with all of the other ones where we believe it [chemical weapons use] actually happened."

The blog Brown Moses has exhaustive details on the properties, uses and effects of sarin gas, which is suspected to be the most likely candidate.

Read more on the history of sarin gas.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 3:30 PM ET

"I'm alive, I'm alive"

Scores have videos and pictures allegedly taken at the site of Wednesday's attack have been released on the internet. A compilation created by blogger Brown Moses can be found here, though, again they have not been independently verified.

As Washington Post's Max Fisher writes, the scale of the attack can be overwhelming to comprehend.

This reportedly video shows one victim, a young girl, who managed to survive.

"It’s not clear whether her behavior is a result of chemical exposure, as some speculate, or of simple terror. She says only, over and over, 'I’m alive, I’m alive,'" writes Fisher.

"There’s no blood or death here; this girl’s experience does not reveal the extent of Tuesday’s loss of life or necessarily show us the symptoms of chemical weapons exposure. What it does show is an experience much more common in Syria, of surviving."

Read the full account at The Post.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 3:00 PM ET

Israel says Syria has used chemical weapons

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Assad's regime had used chemical weapons, though it was unclear if he was referring to the latest incident.

"In Syria, the regime has used chemical weapons and it's not the first time," he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

"It's a life and death struggle between a regime based on the Alawite minority and a disparate opposition composed of Sunni Muslims, some Muslim Brotherhood members, others linked to Al Qaeda," Yaalon said.

Turkey's foreign minister was far more explicit:

UPDATE: 8/21/13 2:50 PM ET

A chronicle of bloodshed

The latest attack, allegedly caused by chemical weapons, is perhaps the most shocking because of the number of videos that have been released and the staggering number of dead, but the bloodshed in Syria has been a near constant in the more than two years since it began.

A mother holds the body of her 5-year-old son during his funeral after he was killed by a sniper outside the city of Homs. (AFP/Getty Images)

Syria's civil war: A chronicle of bloodshed

UPDATE: 8/21/13 2:20 PM ET

State Department also has no corroborative evidence

Syria was the key topic in the State Department's daily briefing as well, with spokesperson Jen Psaki saying she would not talk about red lines.

"If there's nothing to hide, the Syrian regime should give unfettered access to this investigation team," Psaki said.

Psaki said, "There should be no country that stands by [and allows] the credible use of chemical weapons." When asked if she was referring to Russia, Psaki said she would allow people to draw their own conclusions.

A statement earlier Wednesday from Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Lukashevich said, "Several Arab television stations are spreading alarmist reports about the use of chemical agents near Damascus on August 21 this year."

"It is noteworthy that biased regional media immediately began an aggressive information attack—as if ordered to do so—placing full responsibility on the government. It is also clearly no accident, apparently, that reports about the authorities’ use of chemical weapons have taken place in the past, including in recent days, citing various opposition sources, but were not subsequently confirmed. All of this suggests that we are once again dealing with a pre-planned provocation. That is supported by the fact that the criminal act committed near Damascus was carried out at the very moment when a UN expert mission to investigate allegations about the possible use of chemical weapons there had successfully started its work in Syria."

UPDATE: 8/21/13 1:45 PM ET

White House has no independent verification of attack

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the United States had no independent verification of the alleged chemical weapons attack, but urged the Syrian government to give immediate access to UN investigators.

"The use of chemical weapons is something the US finds totally deplorable and completely unacceptable," Earnest said.

When asked how many more would have to die in Syria before the United States became involved, Earnest said the president looks at such situations with the United States' national security interests in mind. In this case, Earnest said, Obama decided that the best path was to work with allies to pressure the Assad regime, aid the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees.

Earnest was asked if the latest attack would change the decision on US "boots on the ground" in Syria. He said the important thing now was to get an investigation team into the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack to make an assessment.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 12:50 PM ET

Emergency meeting of UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency meeting at 3 p.m. EST, after requests from France, Britain, the United States and other member nations.

Reuters reported that the chief UN chemical weapons investigator is talking to the Syrian government about the latest alleged incident.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "shocked" by reports of the alleged chemical weapons attack Wednesday.

A statement from the UN says:

"The United Nations mission to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria is following the current situation in Syria carefully, and remains fully engaged in the investigation process that is mandated by the Secretary General. Professor Sellström is in discussions with the Syrian Government on all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident."

UPDATE: 8/21/13 12:15 PM ET

US calls for UN investigation and UN Security Council to hold emergency meeting

A statement from the White House said the US is deeply concerned by the reports of an alleged chemical weapons attack.

"The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons, near Damascus earlier today. We are working urgently to gather additional information," read the statement from Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

"The United States strongly condemns any and all use of chemical weapons. Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable. Today, we are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation. The UN investigative team, which is currently in Syria, is prepared to do so, and that is consistent with its purpose and mandate."

The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Syria today, according to Reuters.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 12:00 PM ET

'Something terrible has happened'

While the question on whether what took place in Syria is a chemical weapons attack or not remains unanswered, The Trench wrote, "It is clear that something terrible has happened. The scenes could not have been stage managed."

Jeffrey Goldberg, who writes for The Atlantic and Bloomberg, posted this:

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front:

UPDATE: 8/21/13 11:50 AM ET

About that red line...

Whether or not this is a chemical weapons attack has far-reaching implications for the conflict in Syria.

Almost exactly one year ago, US President Barack Obama drew the "red line" for intervention in Syria.

On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama said, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

He went on to say, "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."

The White House is expected to address the issue in its daily briefing today at 12:45 p.m.

Here is a timeline of Obama's rhetoric on the situation in Syria and his "red lines."

UPDATE: 8/21/13 11:40 AM ET

Russia calls attack a "criminal act"

Russia's Foreign Ministry called for an investigation into the alleged chemical weapons attack on Wednesday.

Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman for the ministry, said the fact that UN chemical weapons inspectors were close to the site of the attack suggested it could be a provocation.

"All this cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation. This is supported by the fact that the criminal act was committed near Damascus at the very moment when a mission of U.N. experts had successfully started their work of investigating allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons there," he said, in a statement, according to Reuters.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 11:30 AM ET

Collecting the names

An activist near one of the sites told GlobalPost's Tracey Shelton that 783 victims have been named and identified so far.

By location, the numbers from the activist (who asked not to be named) are the following:

Hammwria - 300 Kafar batna - 140 Moa'adamia - 103 A'erbeen - 85 Saqba - 67 Douma - 64 Jesreen - 16 Daria - 7

Shelton said the towns above are general areas close to the region hit.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch is collecting names and is expected to release a number shortly.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 11:20 AM ET

A grim compilation of videos

Blogger Brown Moses compiled 75 videos (though they have yet to be verified) of the alleged attack Wednesday.

Warning, the content, as noted, is very graphic and not verified independently.

The Guardian's Shiv Malik watched some of the videos and wrote:

Having currently viewed around two dozen videos and photos including two videos purporting to have been shot live on bambuser, what is pretty clear is that those in the triage and first aid rooms believed that they were dealing with a chemical or toxic attack.

Those attending have stripped the injured down - seemingly in an effort to remove traces of any possible toxics from clothes. None of the injured or dead appear to have any visible injures. Many if not all of the injured are struggling to breathe or suffering from respiratory problems.

Some footage shows people wearing oxygen masks and others show scenes of people's hearts and chests being massaged or being hosed and washed. In a few cases people including children are filmed foaming at the mouth whilst those attending give mouth to mouth.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 11:00 AM ET

Was it a chemical weapons attack?

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British Chemical and Biological counterterrorism forces told BBC News that the footage he had seen looked similar to previous chemical weapons attacks, though he did not verify the footage.

In April, the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood of the Syrian city of Aleppo was hit by an attack that put 22 patients in the hospital with some signs consistent with a chemical weapons attack.

However, the incident turned out to be more complicated, and GlobalPost asked experts to weigh in, highlighting the difficulty with confirming claims of chemical weapons attacks:

"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."

Read more on the signs of chemical weapons use here.

UPDATE: 8/21/13 3:00 AM ET

Hundreds killed in chemical weapons attack, say Syrian activists

Hundreds of people died Wednesday after Syrian government forces fired nerve gas on rebel strongholds near Damascus, the opposition says, in what activists are describing as one of the worst atrocities in Syria's two-year civil war.

Rockets loaded with the poisonous gas landed on the capital's eastern suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar, activists told Reuters. Casualties were also reported in several other neighboring suburbs.

A Damascus-based monitoring group told the news agency that local medical centers had counted a combined total of 494 fatalities. Syria's largest opposition alliance, the Syrian National Coalition, put the number as high as 1,300.

The Syrian government denies that any chemical weapons attack took place.

Graphic videos posted online purported to show rows of victims — including several young children — lying motionless in makeshift hospitals. Their authenticity cannot be confirmed.

"Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims," Bayan Baker, a nurse at an emergency center in the suburb of Douma, told Reuters.

In Israel, where government and military officials have repeatedly accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of using chemical weapons, army radio played an interview with one local doctor who told a Syrian TV network that he was looking at up to 1,000 dead, entire families, many children.

"A massacre," he said, his voice breaking, "and the world looks away."

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll lower, telling the Associated Press that "tens of people" were killed. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds were dead or injured. None of the claims have been independently verified.

Hospitals in northern Israel that regularly treat wounded Syrians said they had not received any new patients from across the border Wednesday — including two, the Western Galilee hospital and Haifa's Rambam hospital, that are set up specifically for chemical weapons injuries. "With chemicals, you're dead or you're alive," a spokesman at the Rambam facility said.

Syrian officials called the reports "completely baseless," according to state news agency SANA. They claimed the story was an attempt to "distract" the United Nations from its investigation into earlier allegations of chemical weapon use.

UN inspectors arrived in Syria on Sunday to begin looking into claims that both government and rebel forces have used poison gas during the conflict.

They are due to visit three sites, including the village of Khan al-Assal near the northern city of Aleppo, where dozens died in an attack on March 19 that each side blames on the other.

Amid appeals by activists, UN Security Council members the UK and France said they would ask the inspectors to add Ghouta to their itinerary to investigate the latest claims. "Those who order the use of chemical weapons, and those who use them, should be in no doubt that we will work in every way we can to hold them to account," said UK Foreign Secretary William Hague.

A UN spokesperson said that the organization was aware of the reports and would try to find out more.

Its inspectors require permission from Assad's government, however, and given the limited access they've been granted so far, it seems unlikely they'll be permitted to go anywhere other than the three sites already agreed.

Reports on Israel Army Radio said that the inspectors were being prevented from leaving their hotel rooms in Damascus Wednesday morning.

"We thought this regime would not use chemical weapons, at least these days with the presence of the UN inspectors," Abu Yassin, an activist who said he helped recover some of the bodies, told the New York Times from Damascus. "It is reckless. The regime is saying, 'I don't care.'"

GlobalPost's Middle East correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky contributed to this report from Jerusalem. Follow her on Twitter @NTarnopolsky.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/130821/syria-213-killed-nerve-gas-attack-ghouta-damascus