Syrian Opposition Groups Deny Chemical Weapons Attack

U.S. likely remains undecided after reports of Israeli air strike, rebel chemical attack.

This citizen journalism image provided by the Local Council of Barzeh, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian rebels taking cover in the the Barzeh district of Damascus, Syria, Friday, April 26, 2013. (Local Council of Barzeh/AP Photo)
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Top Syrian rebel groups denied Monday they have used chemical weapons against the Assad regime, claiming they don't have the capability or motivation to launch such an attack.

[PHOTOS: Violence in Syria Escalates]

Free Syrian Army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Salim Idris said in a statement his group doesn't know where the regime's weapons of mass destruction are stored, and instead accused the government of using chemical agents against innocent civilians.

"The Free Syrian Army has neither the capabilities nor the motivation to deploy chemical weapons on Syria's battlefields," Idris said in a May 6 memo obtained by U.S. News. "Assad's chemical weapons stores, which have been used by the regime numerous times in recent months against opposition forces and supportive civilian populations, have not yet been located, contained, or secured by FSA units."

The denial comes on the heels of accusations leveled by Carla Del Ponte, a former chief prosecutor for two U.N. international criminal tribunals, who told a Swiss television station on Sunday that U.N. weapons inspectors had "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof" that the Syrian opposition may have used chemical weapons.

 

But the United Nations has tapped the breaks following these claims and rebel denials. Its Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a Monday statement that it "has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict."

The commission added it would decline to comment further.

Syria experts say these claims further confuse those who are still undecided on what to do in Syria.

"It helps blur all these lines about what is a 'red line,' in terms of international intervention," says Elizabeth O'Bagy, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. "But also for people inside [Syria], who are torn between supporting the regime or supporting the opposition."

The U.S. likely already has any evidence it needs to determine the use of chemical weapons, O'Bagy says, but has not yet figured out the best political and military strategy for involving itself in Syria.

[READ: Chemical Weapons Used in Syria, Administration Confirms]

The Syrian Support Group points to an increase in the brutal violence of the Syrian war, regardless of which side is responsible.

"The U.S. should continue to consider the threat that Syrian citizens and the wider region is under," says Dan Layman, a spokesman for SSG which raises funds for the opposition under a license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

"Though the reports of possible opposition chemical weapons use are ill-informed, the reports themselves are reflective of the increasing destabilization and regionalization of the conflict," he says. "This is something that the U.S. and other countries have to add to the scale when weighing the benefits and detriments of international intervention. "

Despite the graphic nature of these most recent accounts, the U.S. likely won't get further involved because of it, O'Bagy says.

"There has not been enough motivation to get more involved, and I don't think this will be the 'make it or break it' that prevents or creates the need for greater motivation," she says.

[VOTE: Does Obama Need More Information on Chemical Weapons Attacks in Syria?]

Experts on Syrian politics say Assad is a master at calculating just how far he is able to escalate the use of force against his own people before it sparks international intervention. So far he has kept the death toll low enough for the U.S. to tolerate the ongoing violence.

"A large-scale attack, something that was undeniable, where hundreds or thousands are killed, that could be enough," says O'Bagy. "It's very much part of Assad's strategy. From the beginning of the uprising he's been pushing his boundaries."

"Every time he doesn't get a response from the international community, he ups the ante," she adds.

Western countries had largely remained uninvolved militarily until reports this weekend that the Israeli military had conducted targeted strikes on Syrian military facilities. Israel claims it intervened to prevent the spread of "game changing" weapons of mass destruction to Hezbollah, the militant political party in Lebanon.