UNITED NATIONS – Careful not to blame either side for a deadly chemical weapon attack, U.N. inspectors reported Monday that rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin had been fired from an area where Syria’s military has bases, but said the evidence could have been manipulated in the rebel-controlled stricken neighborhoods.
The U.S., Britain and France jumped on evidence in the report – especially the type of rockets, the composition of the sarin agent and trajectory of the missiles – to declare that President Bashar Assad’s government was responsible.
Russia, Syria’s closest ally, called the investigators’ findings “deeply disturbing,” but said it was too early to draw conclusions. The Syrian government’s claims that opposition forces were responsible for the attack “cannot be simply shrugged off,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin insisted.
The conclusions represented the first official confirmation by impartial scientific experts that chemical weapons were used in Syria’s civil war, but the inspectors’ limited mandate barred them from identifying who was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack.
“This is a war crime,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council when he presented the report. “The results are overwhelming and indisputable. The facts speak for themselves.”
Ban called it “the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them” in Halabja, Iran, in 1988, and “the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century.”
The deep division between Western backers of rebels seeking to overthrow Assad and Russian and Chinese supporters of the regime has paralyzed the U.N. Security Council since the Syrian conflict began 2 1/2 years ago.
Even though the United States and Russia agreed Saturday on the framework to put Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and precursors under international control for future destruction, their top diplomats were at odds Monday over a new Security Council resolution that would make the deal legally binding – and whether there should be a reference to possible military enforcement if Syria doesn’t comply.
After months of negotiations, the U.N. inspectors went to Syria to visit the sites of three alleged chemical attacks earlier this year and were in the capital of Damascus on Aug. 21 when reports and videos began surfacing of a shelling attack in which victims experienced shortness of breath, disorientation, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, weakness and a loss of consciousness.
They finally gained access to three towns where the Aug. 21 attack occurred, and on one occasion their convoy was hit by sniper fire, but the inspectors were nonetheless able to collect a large amount of material and talk to survivors and witnesses.
“The environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used … in the Ghouta area of Damascus,” their report said.
“The conclusion is that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale,” they said. “This result leaves us with the deepest concern.”
The rebels and their Western and Arab supporters have blamed Assad’s regime for the attack in the rebel-controlled area of Ghouta. The Syrian government insists the attack was carried out by rebels. The U.N. report mentions the Ghouta areas of Ein Tarma, Moadamiyeh and Zamalka, all of which were featured in videos of victims that emerged after the attack.
The U.N. report did not mention how many people were killed in the Aug. 21 attack. The U.S. says more than 1,400, but other death toll estimates have been far lower.
In the report, chief inspector Ake Sellstrom said the team was issuing the findings on the Ghouta attacks “without prejudice” to its continuing investigation and final report on the alleged use of chemical weapons in three other areas. Ban said he expects the inspectors to return to Syria “as soon as possible” to complete their investigation.
Under an Aug. 13 agreement between the U.N. and the Syrian government, Sellstrom’s team was scheduled to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 on the village of Khan al Assal outside Aleppo and alleged attacks on two other sites that were kept secret for security reasons. The inspectors’ report for the first time identified the two sites still to be investigated as Sheik Maqsood and Saraqueb.