UN Probes Syrian Chemical-Weapon Use With Evidence Scarce

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Faisal Muqdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, gives a press conference in Damascus on March 19, 2013. Syria's government and rebel forces accused each other of using chemical weapons. Close

Faisal Muqdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, gives a press conference in Damascus on... Read More

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Source: AFP/Getty Images

Faisal Muqdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, gives a press conference in Damascus on March 19, 2013. Syria's government and rebel forces accused each other of using chemical weapons.

The United Nations will probe conflicting accounts of as many as three alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria, which could prompt intervention by the U.S. or other countries if substantiated.

Given the high stakes, finding conclusive evidence will be a challenge.

Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior research fellow at the Paris- based European Union Institute for Security Studies, said he’s “not convinced” that video and photos released by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime prove its charges that rebels used chemical weapons in Aleppo province on March 19.

“There are no images of the site of the attack; just some of the affected people,” Zanders wrote on the Arms Control Law blog. “These people do not show outward symptoms” consistent with exposure to agents such as mustard or nerve gas.

Still, he sees a risk of rising tensions.

“The next days and weeks may become very nasty indeed,” Zanders wrote. “Not just because of chemical warfare, but also because of the various red lines Western states, and the U.S. in particular, have drawn if such an escalation with chemical weapons were to take place.”

President Barack Obama, who has said proven use of deadly gas would be a “game-changer” for U.S. policy, warned Assad yesterday to keep chemical weapons out of the conflict.

“I have made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders -- we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer of these weapons to terrorists,” Obama said in Jerusalem. “The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.”

Chemical Stockpile

Syrian government charges of a rebel chemical attack, and opposition counterclaims that regime forces resorted to chemical warfare in three instances since December, have sparked concern over the safekeeping of chemical weapons in a two-year civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people. Syria holds the region’s largest stockpile.

The UN’s investigation, announced yesterday by Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, will focus on allegations by Syrian authorities that an opposition rocket laden with chemicals killed 25 people on March 19. The opposition says it was Assad’s troops that used a toxic weapon.

The U.K. and France formally requested a wider probe to include claims alleging chemical weapons use on March 19 near Damascus and on Dec. 23 in Homs. Rebels say those attacks were carried out by government forces.

“I am of course aware that there are other allegations of similar cases involving the reported use of chemical weapons,” Ban told reporters in New York.

Iraq Specter

Russia, which has supported Assad, voiced skepticism about rebel claims. Its UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said demands for a wider UN probe evoked the “specter of Iraq,” alluding to the U.S.-led 2003 invasion triggered by still unproven allegations that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.

Neither the U.S. nor its European allies, which have supported the Syrian opposition, say they’ve confirmed chemical assaults by either side.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Syria’s combatants may want to exploit alarm about chemical weapons. For the opposition, it could draw more active support from the West.

“We don’t want to be baited into a situation,” said O’Hanlon, who described the possibility of U.S. intervention as remote given reluctance by Obama and the public.

‘Unfettered Access’

Getting answers in Syria, where few journalists and aid workers are allowed entry, won’t be easy. A UN team monitoring the conflict departed last year, unable to leave their hotels or keep track of abuses committed on the ground.

Ban stressed the need for “unfettered access” and said the UN mission would be dispatched “as soon as practically possible.”

In a separate report, Ban said turmoil in Syria threatened a four-decade ceasefire with Israel, monitored by about 1,000 UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights. Patrols of the border have been suspended because of safety concerns, and some countries, including Croatia and Japan, have recalled their troops from the peacekeeping force.

The fighting also has spurred a refugee exodus that threatens to destabilize neighboring Jordan and Lebanon.

Obama is scheduled to arrive today in Jordan for meetings with King Abdullah on how the U.S. can help the Middle East ally grapple with the influx of Syrians fleeing the conflict.

Western Intervention

Amid the conflicting chemical weapons claims, Western powers are considering whether to weigh in more forcefully.

The U.K. has said it will supply armored vehicles and body armor for the opposition. France said it may act alone to arm the rebels.

Calls for action are growing in the U.S.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, signed a letter to Obama supporting efforts to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and establish a “safe haven” for opposition groups.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, speaking on PBS’s “The Charlie Rose Show,” called for intervention -- short of “whole-scale war” -- to disrupt Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities.

“As the president called for that red line, this is the time we need to take action if we’re going to prevent needless civilian casualties,” Rogers said.

Ban has some power to work around the impasse over Syria at the UN Security Council by dispatching a fact-finding mission. The most pertinent parallel goes back to the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.

UN chemical warfare experts traveled to the region in 1984, 1986 and 1987 to look into Iranian claims that Iraq had used chemical weapons and concluded in reports on all three trips that Saddam Hussein’s regime had used gas on civilians.

To contact the reporter on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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