The Obama administration has refused to send gas masks and other chemical-weapons protection gear to Syrian opposition groups, despite numerous requests dating back more than a year and until the reported chemical-weapons attack that struck the Damascus suburbs August 21.
Following the harrowing attack that left more than 1,300 dead and more than 3,000 injured in East Ghouta and other Damascus suburbs, the Obama administration is contemplating a strike on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But Syrian civilians are still trying to cope with the tragedy and treat the wounded, who include scores of children caught sleeping when the gas was dispersed. The attack zone has a fatal shortage of gas masks, chemical-weapons protection gear, and the nerve agent antidote atropine; civilians and activists have been forced to resort to crafting makeshift masks out of everyday household items.
More chemical-weapons attacks could come, and there is now an urgent demand in rebel-held areas for gas masks and other gear. But there is also anger and frustration among opposition leaders that despite more than a year of requests to the U.S. government, the Obama administration did not send any gas masks or chemical-weapons protection gear to opposition-controlled areas.
“Almost three months ago, we received intelligence information that the regime forces may use chemical weapons in Homs,” said Abo Saleem, the directing commission secretary of the Council of Homs Province and a member of the political bureau of the Revolutionary Council of Homs, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I forward the information to the State Department telling them we are afraid of the use of chemical weapons by the regime and we need gas masks and some training to prepare for such an attack. I got no response. Two weeks after that, the regime used chemical weapons in the old city of Homs, as we were expecting. We sent the State Department reports, but nothing happened.”
In a June email to several administration officials, viewed by The Daily Beast, Saleem begged the U.S. to provide gas masks in advance of further chemical-weapons attacks and warned that without them, the civil war in Syria would only result in more casualties.
“The repeated use of chemical weapons by the Assad army is preventing achieving any balance on the ground, and as such, it is one of the factors that is preventing reaching a fair political solution,” Saleem wrote. “The international community’s quick intervention and with all possible methods to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons against his people is an ethical and legal duty. This is not possible until there is will by the international community, and therefore, there should be no more delays in providing means of preventing its effects.”
Other activists on the ground in Syria told The Daily Beast that their requests to the Obama administration for gas masks date back more than a year and have been ignored or rejected at every turn.
One former Obama-administration official said the national-security staff reviewed a list of nonlethal humanitarian and medical aid that the U.S. could provide to opposition groups more than a year ago and ruled out providing gas masks, though thousands sit in Defense Department warehouses all over the region, left over from the war in Iraq.
“There are a lot of gas-mask kits in excess supply. It was not an issue of availability,” the former official said. “In the early days of the Syria conflict, even the smallest amount of aid to the Free Syrian Army was viewed with great concern. It was a lack of foresight by administration bureaucrats. Unfortunately, now we’re seeing the consequences.”
A senior Obama administration official confirmed to The Daily Beast on Wednesday that the White House did review the issue last year and determined it wouldn’t provide any gas masks or other chemical-weapons protective gear to the Syria opposition because of fears the equipment could get into the wrong hands.
“The provision of protective gear for the opposition sounds like an easy idea, but we need consider the potential for misuse as well,” the official said. “Such equipment requires proper training to be effective, and we need to be careful about how and to whom we provide it.”
That explanation is unlikely to satisfy several Capitol Hill offices that have been informally pressing the administration to provide the Syrian opposition with gas masks for several months. Regime-controlled areas have plenty of gas masks and are being resupplied from their allies, aides pointed out.
“This is a disgrace,” said one senior GOP Senate aide. “Even North Korea is willing to send gas masks to the side they are backing. Meanwhile, innocent civilians requesting U.S. assistance are turned away and told to face Assad’s chemical-weapons attacks on their own, defenseless. Does the administration truly believe that if al Nusra wanted to obtain gas masks for some nefarious purpose, they wouldn’t have the resources or connections to do so?”
To date, the administration has provided only one tranche of nonlethal military supplies to the Free Syrian Army, a convoy of medical kits and Meals Ready to Eat in May that were set to expire shortly after delivery. Despite indicating in June that the U.S. would provide increased military assistance to the FSA to respond to previous chemical-weapons attacks, little or no military aid from the U.S. has reached the rebels.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told The Daily Beast that decisions on assistance are based on what the administration believes is the best use of U.S. funding, take into account the priorities of the Syrian opposition, and are coordinated with international partners.
“We also provide significant resources to humanitarian and medical workers in Syria who have to protect themselves, respond safely, and provide care in the event of a chemical attack,” she said. “In fact, many of those exposed on August 21 have been treated in clinics that have been trained by and are using supplies from the United States.”
Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the administration’s position on not providing gas masks was becoming more and more untenable given the potential of further chemical attacks.
“The main line units wanted gas masks, but we didn’t provide them. The people in the U.S. government are going to have to answer about these programs,” he said.