United Nations inspectors found “clear and convincing evidence” that poison sarin gas was used in an attack near Syria’s capital of Damascus, where the U.S. says President Bashar al-Assad’s troops on Aug. 21 fired chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 people.
“Surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin” were used in Moadamiyah in West Ghouta and Ein Tarma and Zamalka in East Ghouta against “civilians including children, on a relatively large scale,” according to the report issued yesterday, citing collected “chemical and medical samples.”
While the UN team’s mandate was solely to determine whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them, the scientists’ documentation of surface-to-surface rockets points to the government rather than its lesser-armed opposition, U.S., U.K. and French envoys to the UN told reporters after the Security Council was briefed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Ake Sellstrom, the head of the inspection team that went to Syria.
“This was no cottage industry use of chemical weapons,” said Mark Lyall Grant, the British envoy. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador, said the UN report’s “technical details” make “clear only the regime could have carried out” an attack of this scale.
The trajectory of the rockets and their penetration into buildings showed the rockets were shot with “great precision” by Assad’s regime, said Alexis Lamek, the French deputy envoy to the UN.
Jumping to Conclusions
Their Russian counterpart, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, said his Security Council colleagues were jumping to conclusions in blaming the regime. More experts need to take time to verify the evidence and conclusions reached, Churkin told reporters. He said the lack of rebel deaths in the attack was suspicious.
The UN inspectors said sarin was found in rockets recovered at the site of the attack, and in at least 85 percent of blood samples and at least 91 percent of urine samples tested.
Ban said the report’s conclusion was “overwhelming and indisputable.”
“The United Nations Mission has now confirmed, unequivocally and objectively, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria,” the secretary-general told the Security Council, according to an e-mail. “This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law. I trust all can join me in condemning this despicable crime.”
French, British Support
The UN report’s release came two days after the U.S. and Russia agreed on a plan in Geneva calling on Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control for safekeeping and eventual destruction.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry secured French and British support yesterday in pursuing a UN Security Council resolution implementing the chemical weapons plan, with the ultimate goal of forcing Assad out of power.
Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who met in Paris, insisted the Security Council keep alive the threat of an armed response in case Syria backslides on the chemical-disarmament accord. Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that any punitive measures for noncompliance by Syria must be authorized through a second Security Council resolution.
Ban said yesterday that he will support the U.S.-Russian framework “in any way” possible and that he will meet with Kerry and Lavrov in New York on Sept. 28.
The French government has said Assad’s regime has two models of artillery rockets with a range of about 50 kilometers (31 miles) that are “aimed at delivering gases,” including sarin, according to a declassified intelligence report released Sept. 3.
The Syrian opposition has “neither the experience, nor the know-how” to carry out the use of chemical weapons “particularly through vectors as those that were used during the Aug. 21 attack,” the French intelligence concluded.
Sellstrom, the chief UN inspector, told the Security Council yesterday that the “quality of the sarin was higher than that of the sarin used” by Saddam Hussein in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war, according to Power. The U.S. ambassador said Sellstrom told the council that the weapons found were “professionally made,” bearing “none of the characteristics of improvised weapons.”
Assad’s regime has denied using chemical weapons, and Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to blame the Aug. 21 attack on opposition groups in an opinion column last week in the New York Times.
“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria,” Putin wrote. “But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”