In Syria Chemical Probe, Can U.N. Investigators Avoid Saying Who Hit Who?

Cameron Smith, Special to Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- A United Nations inspection mission to Syria that could begin within the next week will seek to determine if chemical weapon attacks have taken place in the nation’s two-year conflict, but reportedly will stop short of assessing which side was to blame.

How realistic is that?

Despite intense international pressure to assign responsibility for an estimated 100-plus deaths due to chemical attacks, the stated goal of the mission steers clear of that international lightning rod. Some issue experts are saying this limitation on scope takes the teeth out of any U.N. findings that might be made.

Washington and its allies have alleged that Syrian President Bashar Assad has crossed a “red line” in unleashing chemical strikes, while Russia has countered that it suspects opposition fighters of doing the same. The Syrian government and rebel forces each deny they are to blame, instead pointing fingers at the other.

Limits on the scope of the upcoming on-the-ground investigation have come amid these differences between powerful U.N. Security Council permanent members and Assad’s refusal to give inspectors free rein.

Under U.N. guidelines about alleged chemical weapons use, the secretary-general has the latitude to determine how an investigation will be conducted. The guidelines also state that a U.N. member state should receive an inspection team “without prejudice to allow for timely and efficient investigations.”

However, the process of negotiating with Syria has made putting investigators on the ground much harder for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Assad “thinks that he is going to win” the two-year-old civil war and is “trying to rehabilitate his image,” something that would be “very difficult to do” if he is linked to chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians, said Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

Damascus to date has said it would allow investigators access to the sites of just three alleged chemical attacks -- assaults that Bashar Assad’s regime has attributed to opposition forces. Those are the town of Khan al-Assal, where an alleged sarin gas attack on March 19 killed at least 26 people, and two locations that diplomats told Agence France-Presse were in Homs, following a possible Dec. 23 chemical incident, and near Damascus, allegedly struck in March.

By contrast, anti-government militants have agreed to fully cooperate with the investigations and have said the 10-member U.N. team, to be led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, may exercise full access to sites in rebel-held territory. In particular, the Syrian opposition has urged the United Nations to inspect an additional site in the town of Adra, where rebels assert that Assad used toxic chemicals on civilians.

It is unclear whether the opposition pledge of open access will make a difference on the ground.

“If the Syrian government has only approved three sites, that’s all inspectors are going to see,” Kattouf said, based on his understanding of the situation. That would make it highly unlikely that investigators could verify chemical weapons use at any of the sites that rebels are urging them to check.

What’s more, the passage of time since the three attacks are alleged to have transpired could have erased most or all of the evidence -- and make any evidence that remains somewhat suspect, according to experts.

One of the best ways to attribute a chemical attack to one side or another is by identifying the provenance of the delivery system, said Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons nonproliferation expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

However, because so much time has passed and much of the country remains a war zone, “that type of evidence may not be at the incident sites any more,” she said.

The integrity of the assault locations to be investigated is a major question mark, as well. “The likelihood that these sites remain undisturbed in the midst of a civil war is very low,” Smithson said.

For any physical evidence on the ground or medical samples that are obtained, investigators “are not likely to be able to confirm the chain of custody,” thus “rendering that evidence questionable,” Smithson said.

To some, the mission will be for naught if chemical weapon use is discovered but neither side is cited as having originated the attack.

A U.N. inspection mission that rules out a search for attribution “makes it meaningless,” asserted Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former journalist in Damascus.

In past conflicts, it has sometimes been possible to credibly pin alleged chemical weapon use on one side or another, Smithson said.

One instance was a 1988 report concluding that both Iraq and Iran had used chemical weapons in the nearly eight-year Iran-Iraq war. That WMD conflagration prompted the U.N. Security Council to adopt Resolution 620, which states the body’s dismay that there had been repeated, and increasingly intense, chemical weapons use in the conflict, particularly by Iraqi forces. Iran’s chemical weapons program was begun as a response to the use of chemical agents by Iraqi forces during that war.

International inquiries do not always result in confirmed attacks though. Past investigations at times have determined that “allegations have no merit,” according to Smithson. For example, she said, “a 1992 investigation of a supposed chemical attack by the Mozambican National Resistance found no evidence to substantiate the charge.”

The United Nations on Tuesday announced that final preparations were being made for the Syria inspection operation.

Ban released a statement through his press office saying that trip details would be finalized “within the next days.” Sellstrom’s team of chemical and health experts has reportedly convened at The Hague, Netherlands, and is preparing to depart for Syria.

Tabler said the limited access apparently afforded to the inspectors would not be enough to conclude anything significant.

“If you’re gonna get into it, it’s better to be comprehensive,” he said. The United Nations and its team of inspectors would get somewhere with their findings only if they “don’t bend and stay true to their principles and are hard-nosed,” Tabler said.

But after a long ordeal to gain Syrian government consent for allowing the chemical weapons investigators into the country, lobbying for access to more locations may not be wise, according to some experts.

“The U.N. might push to investigate more sites, but that would probably mean additional delay, which would be detrimental to the investigation of the three arranged sites,” Smithson said.

The lengthy U.N.-Syria negotiations may also have been part of a ploy by Assad to create the sense that “any kind of normal investigation is a victory,” Tabler said.

The Syrian government could be hoping the international community will be content to have achieved even limited access on the ground, and thus less likely to press for access to additional sites that might implicate the government in the use of chemical agents, he said.

Still, there is a remote possibility that chemical evidence will point back to specific laboratories in which lethal compounds were manufactured, even if it remains unclear which side in the conflict unleashed them.

“There may be hallmarks of a Syrian synthesis program” in trace amounts of chemicals that the inspection team could find at inspection sites, said Smithson.

The potential ability to determine the origin of a chemical weapon attack through trace amounts of agents left after an attack could potentially explain Assad’s desire to maintain control over key aspects of the trip, according to Kattouf.

“When it comes to matters such as this, deception is almost a way of life for this regime,” he told Global Security Newswire. “They have a history of obfuscating. Getting to the truth is much harder to do.”

That said, the mere existence of allegations against Assad and his government doesn’t mean that the regime is “guilty of charges,” Kattouf acknowledged.

Smithson agreed that while Syrian regime chemical weapons use has been alleged by Washington and its allies, other scenarios exist in which exposure to these deadly agents also might have occurred. Possibilities include, according to Smithson:

-- “Syrian forces may have used a chemical warfare agent or other toxic chemical to test the waters on escalating the conflict without an international outcry.

-- “The opposition, weary of waiting for outside assistance and aware that the international community largely believes the Syrian government to possess chemical weapons, might have released a toxic chemical to push other countries to enter the fray. 

-- “A conventional bomb might have triggered a release of chemicals from a local facility.  [While] not a deliberate event, [this is] something that has happened frequently in past conflicts, such as in Yugoslavia,” Smithson said.

The number of variables that could confound attribution of any chemical-strike evidence is immense, she and other experts underscored. However, some small chance remains that clues to culpability will emerge from the U.N.-sponsored trip, despite limitations on the scope of inspections, experts said.