United Nations chemical investigators have confirmed the use of sarin nerve agent in an Aug. 21 poison gas attack outside the Syrian capital in a long-awaited report that the United States, Canada, Britain and France said proved government forces were responsible.
“This is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja [Iraq] in 1988,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. “The international community has pledged to prevent any such horror from recurring, yet it has happened again.”
The UN team was investigating only whether chemical weapons were used in a deadly assault on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The report does not say who launched the attack.
“On the basis of the evidence obtained during the investigation of the Ghouta incident, 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,” said the report by chief UN investigator Ake Sellstrom of Sweden.
“In particular, 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,” it said.
The weather conditions on Aug. 21 ensured that as many people as possible were injured or killed, the report said. Temperatures were falling between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., it said, which meant that air was moving downward, toward the ground.
“Chemical weapons use in such meteorological conditions maximizes their potential impact as the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and penetrate into lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter,” it said.
The results of Mr. Sellstrom’s investigation are not surprising. Several weeks ago U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that sarin had been used in the chemical attack on the Ghouta region. The United States has said that 1,400 people were killed, including more than 400 children.
“This is a war crime,” Mr. Ban told the Security Council when he presented the report. “The results are overwhelming and indisputable. The facts speak for themselves.”
On Friday, Mr. Ban said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has committed many crimes against humanity,” though he did not specifically blame him for the Ghouta attack. He added that Mr. al-Assad would be held to account for his crimes.
Syria and Russia have blamed the Aug. 21 attack on the rebels. The rebels, the United States and other Western powers blame forces loyal to Mr. al-Assad for the Ghouta attack.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement that the UN report provides additional evidence that supports the view that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime.
“Anything less than full compliance by Assad is completely unacceptable and should be dealt with in a serious and firm manner,” he said.
British, French and U.S. envoys told reporters the UN report left no doubt that Mr. al-Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical attack. The opposition Syrian Coalition said the report “clearly shows that only the Syrian regime could have carried out these attacks.”
Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin countered that there was no scientific proof government forces were responsible for the attack. “We need to not jump to any conclusions,” Churkin said.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power provided some details.
“We have associated one type of munition cited in the UN report – 122 mm rockets – with previous regime attacks,” she said. “We have reviewed thousands of open source videos related to the current conflict in Syria and have not observed the opposition manufacturing or using this style of rocket.”
British Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant said the rocket samples examined had a payload of 350 litres, 35 times the amount used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack.
“Mr Sellstrom confirmed that the quality of the sarin was superior both to that used in the Tokyo subway but also to that used by Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war,” he told reporters.
“This does not point to a cottage industry chemical,” said Mr. Lyall Grant, taking a swipe at earlier comments by Mr. Churkin, who said in July that a Moscow analysis found “cottage industry” quality sarin gas was used in an alleged March 19 attack that he blamed on the rebels.
U.S. President Barack Obama signed an order Monday waiving a part of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act to permit U.S. authorities to supply protective equipment to Syrian opposition members to guard against chemical weapons. The order also extends to international organizations.
The UN investigators studied five impact sites and were able to determine the likely trajectory of the projectiles at two sites: Moadamiyah and Ein Tarma.
Eliot Higgins, who blogs under the name of Brown Moses and has been tracking videos of weapons used in the Syria conflict, wrote that he has not seen the opposition using the munitions identified in the report: a variant of the M14 artillery rocket and a 330 mm calibre artillery rocket.
Rebels have seized all kinds of weapons from military depots across the country in the 21/2-year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, according to the United Nations.
But Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at Monterey Institute, said the Aug. 21 attack bore “so many hallmarks of a military trained in chemical warfare doctrine” and not an untrained force. She said the army has chemical delivery systems the rebels lack.
The UN confirmation of sarin gas use on Aug. 21 came as France, Britain and the U.S. agreed in Paris to seek a “strong and robust” UN resolution that sets binding deadlines on removal of chemical weapons.
Those talks followed a weekend deal on Syria’s chemical weapons reached by the U.S. and Russia that could avert U.S. military action to punish the Syrian government for Aug. 21.
Mr. Ban urged the Security Council to consider ways to ensure enforcement and compliance with the U.S.-Russia plan. “I agree there should be consequences for non-compliance. Any use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, is a crime,” he said.
With a report from Associated Press