Suffering in Syria is clear, but cause and culprits are murky

Story highlights

Videos of suffering and dying Syrians suggest a chemical attack, but verification is difficult

Bashar al-Assad's government, rebels trade accusations, denials about event on Wednesday

Outside experts are unsure if there was a chemical attack, and if so, what agent was used

CNN  — 

The videos and photographs are numbered in the dozens, every one of them telling a fragment of a terrible story: toddlers breathing their last gasp, the bodies of children laid out in rows and covered in blocks of ice, their faces pale and expressionless.

Elsewhere, dozens of white shrouds appear to hold the corpses of adults, the names of the victims written hurriedly on the cloth.

There was some sort of ghastly event in the suburbs of Damascus early on Wednesday: the sheer volume of material uploaded within a short time span and the consistent testimony of medical staff attest to that.

But there are as many questions as answers. The victims showed no sign of injury; there was none of the bloodshed associated with artillery attacks, no wounded, dust-covered people being dug from buildings reduced to ruins.

It was impossible to know how many had died and exactly where or why. By the end of the day, the Local Coordination Committees were reporting that more than 1,300 people had been killed in areas around Damascus, some 400 in the neighborhood of Zamalka alone.

Even by the standards of Syria’s remorseless conflict, that would represent a catastrophic day. But there was no way to verify such figures: mass burials began within hours, and of course, there was no access to the area for independent observers.

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Accusations fly

Opposition activists almost immediately alleged President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against districts long controlled by rebel groups. It is not the first such allegation; some activists were soon claiming the regime had used sarin, a nerve agent that it is widely thought to possess. Residents spoke of dizziness and choking, convulsions and difficulty breathing, which would be consistent with the symptoms of sarin poisoning. But some victims appeared to have died in their sleep, undisturbed, according to local reports.

The Syrian government dismissed the claims of chemical weapons being used as “disillusioned and fabricated.”

Some opposition activists say the toxin used may have been “Agent 15,” also known as BZ. Its full name is 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, and it affects both the peripheral and central nervous systems.

The opposition claimed that BZ was used in tank shells fired in the city of Homs last December. A doctor in the city told the online publication “The Cable” soon after that the victims “all had miosis – pinpoint pupils. They also had generalized muscle pain. There were also bad symptoms as far as their central nervous system. There were generalized seizures, and some patients had partial