AILSA CHANG, HOST:
OK, we're going to go now to the region to talk more about what questions remain and what information has emerged about the suspected chemical weapons attack, and why we are still using the word suspected. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been tracking all of this from Beirut. Hi, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.
CHANG: Can you just first give us some history on the Syrian regime's use of chemical attacks in this whole civil war so far?
SHERLOCK: Well, chemical weapons have been used many, many times in the Syrian civil war. In fact, a team of U.N. investigators have been able to verify about 33 cases of chemical weapons use. And they say that about 27 of those were by the Syrian government. Chlorine gas is the most commonly used chemical. It's been weaponized in the Syrian war. And, you know, it has a lower death toll because it disperses quickly, but it's still deadly in high concentration. It becomes a sort of acid in your lungs that causes a buildup of liquid, and you essentially drown.
CHANG: So given that there have been so many documented examples, why are there still lingering doubts about whether this was a chemical attack and how many people were killed?
SHERLOCK: Well, the U.S. and the U.K. and France say they have their own intelligence on this. You know, there are things that have been verified in other attacks in the past that haven't become publicly clear in this attack yet. Let's start with those killed. The widely circulated figure is 43 people dead. But that seems to rely on the account given by the White Helmets rescue group, and that's based on witness accounts from their rescuers in that area. They say the bodies have been buried now, and they've not produced video or photo evidence that matches that death toll. And, you know, overall the White Helmets, which operates in rebel-held areas across Syria, has been pretty reliable. But there are some issues that have come up specifically with the credibility of the rescuers in Douma.
CHANG: Like what?
SHERLOCK: Well, this area was controlled by one rebel group for a long time, and they imposed quite a strong rule on this area. So one theory is they may be under more pressure to toe the rebels' party line there. I'm not saying that the attack didn't happen. But it's still very early days in establishing the facts of it.
CHANG: Meanwhile the Syrian government seems to be back to attacking rebel-held areas in the last couple days not with chemical weapons but with conventional weapons. Can you tell us how extensive those attacks have been?
SHERLOCK: Many, many, more people have died in Syria through conventional weapons. And even now the Syrian Observatory monitoring group is reporting dozens of airstrikes in areas in central Hama and Homs province, where the regime is trying to consolidate its control from the opposition there. These strikes often hit civilian areas. And often they use barrel bombs. That's literally barrels filled with TNT that are designed to kill as widely and imprecisely as they can.
In fact, there was a study by the pro-opposition Syrian Network for Human Rights which said that from July 2012 until the end of December last year more than 68,000 barrel bombs were dropped by Syrian regime helicopters. So, you know, while the world looks at this and sees, as your guest said, that there needs to be a taboo against chemical weapons, Syrians are really struggling to see the distinction and are frustrated that there's not more action being taken against the use of all weapons.
CHANG: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Thank you very much, Ruth.
SHERLOCK: Thank you.
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