The United Nations today failed to clear up conflicting claims about chemical weapons in Syria, after a former war-crimes prosecutor said there were signs that rebels, not government forces, had used sarin gas.
“I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got, they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition,” Carla Del Ponte, a member of a UN commission investigating human-rights violations and war crimes in Syria, told Swiss-Italian public television yesterday.
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council didn’t knock down the claim. The four-member panel “has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict,” according to an e-mailed statement. The findings of the commission, set up in 2011 to probe alleged violations in the Syrian conflict, will be released June 3.
The Obama administration remains “highly skeptical” of claims the opposition could have or would have used chemical weapons, White House press secretary Jay Carney said today in Washington. Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, said today the U.S. position is that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would “very likely have originated” with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Del Ponte, who in the past took on the Italian Mafia and prosecuted former Serb President Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, said investigations so far have yielded “no indication at all” that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.
“According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions -- but not yet incontrovertible proof -- of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” she said.
Del Ponte’s comments may further complicate the task of finding out when, how and by whom chemical weapons are being used in a country that has shut out the outside world. While U.S., British and French intelligence points to chemical weapons having been used, establishing the chain of custody has proven difficult.
“The case for arming the rebels will be undermined partially,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, the London-based founder of political risk analyst Cornerstone Global Associates, in a telephone interview from Abu Dhabi. ‘There will be a greater debate over whether or not the rebels should be supported with armed at all. Also, the case for supporting the ‘right’ rebels that the West trusts may complicate the way the West deals with the entire conflict.’’
Russia has supported Assad’s claims that “terrorists,” the regime’s standard term for the rebels, have used poison gas.
Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Moscow this week to try and persuade Russia to back away from its support for Assad. The U.S. and its European allies have supported the rebels, who accuse Assad’s forces of using sarin on civilians.
President Barack Obama, who previously declared any proven use of the poison gas would cross a “red line,” faces growing calls for action by lawmakers advocating deeper U.S. involvement in Syria.
UN chemical weapons experts have been unable to enter Syria to verify at least three allegations of chemical weapons use since Dec. 23. The opposition and the Syrian government have blamed each other for a March 19 incident in Aleppo. Negotiations have dragged on for weeks to gain access to sites to collect soil and blood samples.
Sarin -- a gas developed by Nazis that causes death by choking -- was used by dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s to kill Iraqi Kurds and in a 1995 terrorist attack in Tokyo by a Japanese doomsday cult. Classified by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction, it is banned under international law.