The Mystery Behind a Deadly Chemical Attack

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Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack in Khan al-Asal area near the northern city of Aleppo, March 23.

Reports on bombings in Syria these days have become routine. But when Mohammad Sabbagh, an industrialist from Aleppo, heard about the attack near his hometown on March 19, the details stopped him cold.

Survivors and witnesses of what was being described by the government news agency as a chemical attack said they smelled something like chlorine. And as the owner of Syria’s only chlorine gas manufacturing plant, Sabbagh knew that if chlorine was involved, it most likely came from his factory.

The attack killed 31 people, including 10 soldiers, and wounded scores more. In the immediate aftermath the Syrian government and the opposition traded accusations. The government claimed that “terrorists,” its term for the rebels that have been fighting the regime for two years, had fired a “missile containing a chemical substance” at the village of Khan al-Asal in retaliation for their support of the government.

Kasem Saad Eddine, spokesperson for the opposition military council of Aleppo, accused the government of attacking its own people in order to smear the opposition. “The regime is trying to hide its crime by accusing the FSA,” he tells TIME, referring to the Free Syrian Army, the loose confederation of rebel groups fighting the government. Eddine also accused the Syrian government of launching a second chemical attack near Damascus, causing an unspecified number of casualties.

Whatever the case, the attack at Khan al-Asal marks a chilling evolution in a war that has already taken 70,000 lives and disrupted, perhaps permanently, millions more. If it turns out that the government has used chemical weapons, international demands for armed intervention will increase. If the rebels used them, the escalation in tactics indicates that the war is about to become even bloodier.

Full dispatch here.