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Is this a chemical weapon?

Syrians in Aleppo think this device, which hospitalized more than 20 people with symptoms like foaming at the mouth, is a chemical weapon used by the Syrian government. But experts have their doubts.

Is this a chemical weapon?

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 or not 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.

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.

“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.”

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