President Barack Obama said the U.S. was “deeply skeptical” of Syrian government claims that rebel forces had used chemical weapons as the United Nations faces calls to investigate possible use of deadly gas.
Obama also made clear that while he had serious reservations about the regime’s charges, the use of chemical arms in the conflict would be a “game changer” and required fact-gathering. The UN has been asked by Syria and Western nations to investigate conflicting accounts of two attacks.
“Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapon stockpiles inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government’s capabilities, I think, would question those claims,” Obama said yesterday on the first day of his visit to Israel. “We intend to investigate thoroughly exactly what happened.”
The risk of chemical-weapons use raises the stakes in the two-year-old civil war. Obama has said that Bashar al-Assad’s regime would cross a “red line” if it unleashed its chemical weapons arsenal -- the region’s largest.
Clouding the UN’s decision-making is a chorus of divergent versions of events. Syrian authorities blame the rebels for launching a rocket laden with chemicals in the Khan al-Assal area in Aleppo province, killing 25 people. The opposition said government forces were responsible and accused Assad’s forces of a second chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
Both sides have called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to send a team of investigators. Western governments including the U.S., the U.K. and France are backing the rebels while Russia is supporting the Assad regime, underlining deep splits in the international community over what steps to take to stop hostilities from escalating.
“The facts need to be clarified,” U.K. Deputy Ambassador to the UN Philip Parham told reporters in New York yesterday. There have been “so many falsehoods and distortions” by the Syrian regime.
Ban has the ability to work around the impasse at the UN Security Council by deciding whether to send a fact-finding mission. In 1984, UN chemical warfare experts went to verify Iranian claims that Iraq had used chemical weapons in the conflict between the two nations. Ban has said use of chemical weapons under any circumstances would constitute an “outrageous crime.”
Russia, Syria’s primary arms supplier, has backed the Assad government’s allegations and wants an investigation of only the incident near Aleppo, not the one in Damascus.
“Instead of launching those propaganda balloons, I think that it’s much better to get our focus right and I hope this is what the secretary general is doing,” Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin told reporters yesterday.
Behind the war of words lies a debate among Western powers on whether and how to weigh in more forcefully to end a crisis that has killed more than 70,000 people, spurred a refugee exodus that threatens to destabilize neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, and increased the threat of chemical arms falling into the wrong hands as chaos spreads.
Britain has said it will supply armored vehicles and body armor for the opposition. France said it may act alone to arm the rebels.
While Syria’s government has produced, stored, and weaponized chemical arms, “little is known from open sources” about the stockpile’s size and condition, the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service said in a report in December.
Assad’s regime has been reported to have stocks of nerve and blister agents such as sarin, VX and mustard gas.
Details about any of the attacks are hard to confirm in a country where outside verification is virtually impossible. A UN team of monitors departed Syria last year, unable to leave their hotels or keep track of the abuses committed on the ground.
The Syrian opposition -- which just elected a new interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto -- has accused Assad’s forces of using chemical agents before, most recently on Dec. 23. There have been no confirmed cases, and it wasn’t determined whether such allegations referred to deadly nerve agents such as sarin gas or nonlethal crowd-control irritants such as tear gas.
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told a House of Representatives committee yesterday that the Obama administration hasn’t seen any evidence of use of nerve agents in the conflict.
“So far we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used yesterday, but I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports,” Ford told the foreign affairs committee.