WASHINGTON – Debate whether the Syrian government or the Syrian opposition used chemical weapons on civilians has been dealt a twist with a little-publicized revelation by Russian President Vladimir Putin his country has evidence chemical laboratories in Iraq produced weapons for the Sunni rebels.
Putin's revelation came at the end of last week's G8 Summit of industrialized nations and aligns with an earlier report out of the Middle East that former Baath regime officials of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who are Sunnis, are involved in the production and procurement of such weapons for those fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
"We know that opposition fighters were detained on Turkish territory with chemical weapons," Putin said. "We have information out of Iraq that a laboratory was discovered there for the production of chemical weapons by the opposition. All this evidence needs to be studied most seriously."
At the time of the press conference, Putin did not detail the sourcing of that evidence, the name or location of the laboratory. He is expected to hand off that data to the United Nations for further study.
The idea that Syria's government used chemical weapons has been the foundation of a move by President Obama to decide to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition.
Earlier, the French said it was the Syrian government which used the chemical weapon Sarin.
The Obama administration had said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a "red-line" and a "game-changer" that would prompt the U.S. to begin supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition.
A French official who last week announced that it was the Syrian government that used Sarin on its population said that the tests complied with international standards to prove chemical weapons were used in Syria.
However, the report still didn't point directly to the Syrian government.
U.N. investigators who accepted the French report reacted cautiously to the tests, saying that it was essential to know the chain of custody of the samples used for testing.
Despite its "red-line" pronouncement, the Obama administration also expressed caution over the French findings.
"A U.N. statement said that Mr. (Ake) Sellstrom cautions that the validity of the information is not ensured in the absence of convincing evidence of the chain of custody of the data collected."
Sellstrom is a Swedish scientist who heads the U.N. chemical weapons investigation team.
This caution followed a preliminary report by a U.N. investigative team that similarly concluded that the chemical weapon Sarin had been used on Syrian civilians and some 15 Syrian military personnel in Aleppo, a strategic northern Syrian city that is the commercial center of the country.
Last month, a U.N. team released a preliminary report, based on the results of a commission of inquiry, that suggested Syrian rebels had used Sarin, a nerve agent that can be delivered in artillery shells, among other means of delivery.
Leading the U.N. commission of inquiry was Carla Del Ponte who said there was "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof" that the rebels initiated the Sarin attack. The U.N. still hasn't entirely endorsed Del Ponte's preliminary findings.
Sarin is a colorless, odorless liquid or gas that attacks the respiratory system and can lead to death. It is banned under international law as a weapon of mass destruction, or WMD.
"Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report…which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of Sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated," Del Ponte said.
"This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities," she added in a recent interview on Swiss-Italian television.
Her report also coincided with an interview WND recently had with Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi who was adamant that the Syrian government did not use Sarin on its own population.
He insisted that it came from "terrorists," referring to foreign fighters, particularly the al-Qaida in Iraq Jabhat al-Nusra, which is thought to have the capability of handling and using Sarin.
"There is no rational human being that would think the Syrian army would inflict casualties on itself," he said, considering that some 15 Syrian army soldiers were killed in the explosion.
"Syria will never use chemical weapons against its citizens," said al-Halqi, who was Syria's former health minister and is a medical doctor.
He claimed that the weapons with Sarin were "manufactured in Turkey and funneled to the terrorists."
Al-Halqi was firm in claiming that foreign fighters not only were behind the Sarin attack but said the Sunni Salafis affiliated with al-Qaida and its offshoot in Syria, the al-Nusra group from al-Qaida in Iraq, are primarily behind the attacks under way in the country now.
He said that some 65,000 tons of heavy weapons have been funneled into Turkey from Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Turkey, which like these countries is Sunni, backs Saudi Arabian efforts to remove the regime of Assad from power and replace it with a Sunni regime.
Assad is a Shiite Alawite, although the majority of the Syrian population is Sunni.
Many of the weapons, he said, have been captured, including some from Israel, as well as "Stingers" and anti-tank rockets and mortars.
In revealing that he has proof of Syrian rebel use of Sarin, Putin questioned the credibility of allegations by the U.S., Great Britain and France that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. He then went on to attribute its use to "forces supported by the West," one source said.
What Putin may be alluding to is documentation that backs up yet another little-publicized report that people were killed in the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo with chemical weapons supplied to the foreign fighters by a Saddam-era general working under the head of the now-outlawed Baath party Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
Sources say that the chemical weapons used in this attack had been prepared by former Iraqi Military Industries Brig. Gen. Adnan al-Dulaimi and supplied to Baath-affiliated terrorists of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front in Aleppo through Turkey's cooperation.
These weapons reportedly were conveyed to the foreign Islamist militants through the Turkish town of Antakya in Hatay Province.
The sourcing of this report is said to be an aide to al-Douri, the most senior member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle who is still on the run and heads the outlawed Baath party. The source had defected from the group a few months ago, taking with him documents substantiating al-Douri's plans.
Al-Dulaimi was a central figure in Saddam's chemical weapons program.
"The 80 mm mortar shells which landed in Khan al-Assal and killed dozens of people were armed with the latest product of Dulaimi's hidden laboratories sent to the Nusra members for testing," the source said.
"Also at his order, several former Iraqi military industries engineers trained the Syrian terrorists on how to use these chemical weapons," the source said, adding that all plans in this connection were prepared by al-Dulaimi and staged after Ibrahim's approval.
The chemical mortar shells, which the source said were fired at Khan al-Assal from the Nusra-ruled Kafr Dael in Northwestern Aleppo, contained a chemical substance very familiar to the Iraqi Baath party leaders, Sarin nerve gas.
Al-Dulaimi and his Baathist colleagues in Iraq's military industries mass-produced the same lethal gas and used it in vast areas against Iranian troops in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and eventually killed thousands of people in the Kurdish town of Halabcheh with the same chemical agent.