Aleppo

David Gardner

In this image made available by the Syrian news agency (SANA) on March 19, medics attend to a man at a hospital in the northern Aleppo province. (AFP)Someone who worked closely with Bashar al-Assad, before and after he inherited Syria’s presidency from his father, once remarked to me that he “is not really very bright”. Perhaps. But he is not lacking in cunning.

Now, as in the past, he feels his way forward by probing and constantly testing the limits of what his adversaries will tolerate before provoked to respond. Having sometimes found that these limits are surprisingly elastic, he has developed a tendency to overreach. Yet, as his regime and his country crumble around him, he is still there – just about – and it looks as though he is still testing the limits, this time by the limited use of portions of Syria’s reportedly vast chemical weapons arsenal.

In recent months, allegations have been flying that the Assad regime has fired nerve-gas shells at Syria’s rebels. On the most cited occasion last month, near Aleppo, the country’s besieged commercial capital in the north, loyalist troops were among the casualties, and the government claimed that jihadi terrorists – part of an international conspiracy against Syria in the Assad narrative – were responsible.

Last week, Britain and France told the UN there was “credible evidence” the Assad regime has started using chemical weapons. This week, a top Israeli military intelligence officer categorically asserted the government was using them. The UN team of experts tasked with investigating these claims is meanwhile stranded in Cyprus, denied entry by Damascus.

There is, thus, no certainty about what is going on, but the mounting circumstantial evidence is spine-chilling.

President Barack Obama, who has brushed aside the advice of his security officials in his determination to stay out of Syria, nevertheless warned Damascus last August any use of chemical weapons would provoke unspecified action by the US.

Obama said at the time: “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” On a visit to Israel last month, he reinforced the point, saying the use of chemical weapons inside Syria would be a “game changer” for the US.

So far, however, the White House and State Department are officially withholding judgment on the veracity of Syria’s alleged use of these arms, about which few close observers of the conflict now harbour doubts. There is probably more here than simply the president’s caution. Read more >>

Esther Bintliff

JORDAN - JANUARY 29: Young children sit inside a tent as Syrian refugees go about their daily business in the Za’atari refugee camp on January 29, 2013 in Mafraq, Jordan (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Syrian children in the Za'atari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)

The UN’s World Food Programme is running out of money to feed Syrians – both within the crisis-hit country and outside, in refugee camps where more than 1 million people have fled over the past two years. Javier Blas, the FT’s Commodities editor, has the full story.

The World blog spoke to Matthew Hollingworth, the Damascus-based officer in charge of WFP’s Syria operation, about the practicalities of getting food to people in a war zone.

Q: What kind of food do you provide?

A: When we deliver food to people we’re delivering them a family ration or parcel – a box of food. The idea is that each box has enough food to support a family of five for a whole month. The rations are very simple, non-luxury goods – rice, pasta, bulgur wheat, canned beans, lentils, sugar, salt and vegetable oil. The reason we give them some canned goods is because it’s easier for them to cook and eat those things if they have a problem receiving fuel. Next month we’re adding wheat flour to the basket because there’s a recognition that access to bread is becoming a problem.

Q: How do you transport the food boxes throughout Syria? Read more >>

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Here’s today’s menu for you:

Here’s what we’ve been chatting about today:

Here’s what we’ve been reading, while keeping an eye on the Olympics: