The United Nations will send inspectors to Syria next month to investigate conflicting reports on the alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war there, according to a UN official.
Ake Sellstrom, a veteran of Iraq probes, will lead a team of eight to 10 investigators from Scandinavia, Latin America and Asia, picked to avert suspicions of bias, said the official, who asked not to be identified before the move is announced. The U.S., Turkey and European and Arab nations back rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Russia and China support Assad.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is negotiating access to sites with Syrian authorities and has received more information from the U.K. on three incidents, two on March 19 in Aleppo and near Damascus and one on Dec. 23 in Homs. The Syrian government and opponents have blamed each other for the occurrence in Aleppo, which will be the focus of the initial investigation.
Rather than establishing who carried out any attacks, the priority for investigators will be to discern whether a caustic agent such as chlorine or a home-brewed detergent was used rather than banned chemical weapons such as nerve agents sarin or VX, or mustard gas.
Sellstrom was the chief inspector with the UN mission that in the 1990s investigated and dismantled Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons. He also was a senior adviser with the UN group that went back to Iraq in 2002 and found no weapons of mass destruction, despite U.S. claims to the contrary.
Assad is increasingly desperate as he clings to power and may be testing the limits of Western leaders who have said proven use of deadly chemical agents would cross a “red line,” the UN official said. Russia has said that claims by the opposition may be an attempt to provoke an outside military intervention and the regime’s overthrow.
It’s unclear how much UN investigators will be able to deduce from samples of blood, soil and debris. Chemical-weapons specialists, such as Jean Pascal Zanders of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, are skeptical of the claims.
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, after being unable to leave their hotels or keep track of abuses committed on the ground.
Assad has been warned repeatedly to keep chemical weapons out of the conflict. As chaos increases in the country’s two-year-old war, other nations have voiced increasing concern about the safekeeping of the region’s largest chemical arsenal.
“The world is watching; we will hold you accountable,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in Jerusalem last week.