Doubts Persist on Syria Chem Probe as U.N. Team Reaches Damascus

Global Security Newswire Staff
National Journal

A 20-person U.N. team reached Damascus on Sunday to assess the veracity of claims that chemical arms have been employed in Syria's civil war, the Associated Press reported.

The group is expected to launch its investigation on Monday, according to comments released by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office. U.N. officials have said the probe will steer clear of assigning blame for any chemical strikes in the Syrian conflict, which have resulted in upwards of an estimated 100 deaths. Conventional attacks in the two-year-old civil war have claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Inspectors are to travel to the town of Khan al-Assal, the site of an alleged March 19 sarin nerve gas attack that President Bashar Assad’s regime has blamed on rebel forces. The opposition, in turn, has pinned the reported strike on the government, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

The other two inspection sites remain undisclosed, but diplomats previously identified them to Agence France-Presse as Ataybah, where a chemical attack is alleged to have taken place in March, and Homs, reportedly the target of a chemical assault last December.

A Syrian diplomat said the government wants "this team to find facts on ground, especially about what happened in Khan al-Assal." Damascus is unaware of "any other cases" of chemical arms use in the country, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told AP.

France, the United Kingdom and United States have submitted data tying incidents of chemical-weapon use to the Syrian government, and the Obama administration linked its June announcement of plans to arm opposition fighters with findings that Assad's forces had carried out sarin nerve agent strikes. Syrian resistance members and regional envoys said U.S. arms had yet to reach any rebels, the Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday.

Louay Meqdad, spokesman for the rebels' Western-backed Supreme Military Council, argued that the Syrian government would likely try to lead chemical investigators astray, AP reported.

"This regime that has done everything from changing signs with the names of areas to fabricating evidence with past delegations will do the same with this one," he said.

The conflict's shifting battle lines have raised questions about the safety of the U.N. investigators, the New York Times reported. Opposition forces have promised the U.N. team access to Khan al-Assal, which they captured in July, according to a rebel commander who spoke to the newspaper under a pseudonym. The insider said he and other rebels fear the U.N. inspectors are Assad regime "conspirators."