News Column

U.N. Report Points to Assad for Sarin Attack

September 16, 2013

The Daily Star (Lebanon)

UNITED NATIONS/BEIRUT: The United States, Britain and France warned President Bashar Assad Monday there would be consequences if he failed to hand over Syria's chemical weapons, adding that a U.N. report on the Aug. 21 attack left little doubt his forces were to blame.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Monday presented the Security Council with a report by a U.N. expert team on the attack last month which found sarin nerve gas-filled rockets were fired into the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, but did not say who launched the attacks.

"This is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja [Iraq] in 1988," Ban said. "The international community has pledged to prevent any such horror from recurring, yet it has happened again."

The U.N. team was only investigating whether chemical weapons were used in a deadly assault on the rebel-held suburb, but U.S., British and French envoys said technical details in it pointed to government culpability.

"On the basis of the evidence obtained during the investigation of the Ghouta incident, the conclusion is that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale," said the report by chief U.N. investigator, Swede Ake Sellstrom.

"In particular, the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used," it said.

The report said the weather conditions on Aug. 21 maximized the number of people injured or killed. Temperatures were falling between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., it said, which meant that air was moving down toward the ground.

The results of Sellstrom's investigation are not surprising. Several weeks ago U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that sarin had been used in the chemical attack on the Ghouta region. The United States has said that more than 1,400 people were killed, including more than 400 children.

"This was a grave crime and those responsible must be brought to justice as soon as possible," Ban said.

The inspectors interviewed more than 50 exposed survivors. The report paints a stark picture of the morning of the attack, with those who went to assist witnessing "a large number of individuals lying on the ground, many of whom were deceased or unconscious."

It adds: "Several of these 'first responders' also became ill, with one describing the onset of blurred vision, generalized weakness, shaking, a sensation of impending doom, followed by fainting."

Syria and Russia have blamed the Aug. 21 attack on the rebels. The opposition, the United States and other Western powers blame forces loyal to Assad.It is not immediately clear whether any of the details in the report suggested culpability, but British, French and U.S. envoys told reporters that the U.N. report left no doubt that Assad's government was responsible.

Russian U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin countered that there was no scientific proof government forces were responsible for the sarin attack: "We need to not jump to any conclusions."

British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the rocket samples examined had a payload of 350 liters, 35 times the amount used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. "In response to a question, Mr. Sellstrom confirmed that the quality of the sarin was superior both to that used in the Tokyo subway but also to that used by Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war," he told reporters.

"This does not point to a cottage-industry chemical," said Lyall Grant, taking a swipe at earlier comments by Churkin. Churkin said in July that a Moscow analysis found "cottage-industry" quality sarin gas was used in an alleged March 19 attack, which he blamed on the rebels.

The investigators studied five impact sites and were able to determine the likely trajectory of the projectiles at two sites: Moadamieh and Ain Tarma.

Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at Monterey Institute, said the Aug. 21 attack bore "so many hallmarks of a military trained in chemical warfare doctrine" and not an untrained force.

"The Assad government has been in the business of chemical weapons since the 1970s," she said. "They are trained in military doctrine. They also have chemical delivery systems that the rebels don't."

The U.N. confirmation of sarin gas use on Aug. 21 comes as France, Britain and the U.S. agreed in Paris to seek a "strong and robust" Security Council resolution that sets binding deadlines on the removal of Syria's chemical weapons.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a news conference in Paris that the three powers agreed with Russia that Assad must suffer consequences if he fails to comply with U.N. demands.

"If Assad fails in time to abide by the terms of this framework, make no mistake, we are all agreed and that includes Russia that there will be consequences."

The accord offered the Syrian leader "no lifeline" and he had "lost all legitimacy," Kerry added.

Russia accused the Europeans of trying to reinterpret the agreement.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said any rush to draw up a resolution threatening to punish Syria in the event of noncompliance showed a "lack of understanding" of the deal.

Monday's talks followed a weekend deal on Syria's chemical weapons reached by the United States and Russia that could avert U.S. military action. Syria must provide an inventory of its chemical weapons supplies within a week from Saturday's agreement, and that stockpile must be destroyed by mid-2014.

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Original headline: Western leaders say U.N. sarin report points to Assad

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Source: (c) 2013 The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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