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Syrian rebels say assertions of chemical weapons use are unlikely to curb violence

Syrian rebels and activists reacted with resigned bitterness yesterday to assertions that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, underscoring their low expectations of action by the United States and other Western countries after more than two years of civil war.

Britain and France said Thursday they have credible evidence that Syria has employed nerve agents within its borders more than once since December. In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week, the two governments said soil samples and interviews with witnesses and opposition sources supported claims that President Bashar Assad’s forces had used the chemical weapons in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs and possibly the capital, Damascus.

The European reports constitute the first official outside allegation of the use of chemical weapons in a war that has left at least 70,000 dead and nearly a quarter of the population displaced, according to U.N. figures.

But rebel fighters and activists quickly dismissed the reports as unlikely to affect the daily reality of civilians and fighters in Syria, where dozens of people are killed daily and major cities have been reduced to devastated landscapes of torn concrete and twisted metal.

“The rebels on the ground have stopped paying any attention to any investigation, meetings or statement by any
Western countries regarding the Syrian revolution,” Mohamed Nahal, an activist based in Damascus who
was reached by Skype, said
yesterday. The world has watched Assad batter Syria’s cities and towns with airstrikes, rockets, tank shells and Scud missiles for more than two years “without doing anything for the rebels so far,” he said.

Even so, the prospect of chemical weapons use poses a difficult test for the Obama administration, which has so far declined to arm Syria’s disparate rebel forces but has also called chemical weapons “a game changer.”

Some fighters expressed muted hope yesterday that the reports could indeed prompt a serious international response.

“We are hoping now that both Western and Arab governments will help us,” said Abo Huda Alhomsi, a member of the Free Syrian Army in Homs, near the
Lebanese border. “But the problem is that they think we are Islamic extremists who will be killing minorities,” he said, citing Syrian government claims. “This is not true,” he added, but he said the rumors had hindered badly needed aid to the rebels.

Washington has resisted sending any significant nonlethal military aid to Syria’s rebels, for fear it would fall into the hands of the extremist contingents that are increasingly taking the lead in many front-line battles.

In December, the administration labeled one of
Syria’s rebel groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, a terrorist organization. Group leaders have since publicly sworn their allegiance to
al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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