The United Nations will dispatch four to five inspectors at a time to Syria next month to investigate conflicting reports on alleged use of chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, according to a UN official.
Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who once investigated whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, will head a team of eight to 10 investigators to be picked from Scandinavia, Latin America and Asia to avert suspicions of bias, said the official, who asked not to be identified in advance of an announcement. The U.S., Europe, Turkey and Arab nations have sided with rebels seeking the ouster of President Bashar al- Assad, while Russia and China support the regime.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is negotiating access to sites with the Syrian authorities and has received additional information from the U.K. on three alleged incidents, two that took place March 19 in Aleppo and near Damascus and one on Dec. 23 in Homs. The Syrian government and the opposition have blamed each other for the Aleppo incident, 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-cooked detergent was used rather than banned chemical weapons such as sarin and VX gases, which are both nerve agents, 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 on the UN group that went back to Iraq in 2002 and found no weapons of mass destruction despite U.S. claims to the contrary by President George W. Bush’s administration.
Assad is increasingly desperate as he clings to power and may be testing the limits of Western powers that 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 draw in outside military intervention and overthrow the regime.
Given skepticism surrounding the allegations by specialists on chemical weapons, such as Jean Pascal Zanders of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, it’s also unclear how much UN investigators will be able to deduct from samples of blood, soil and debris.
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.
Assad has been repeatedly warned 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,” President Barack Obama said in Jerusalem this week.
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