UN inspectors confirm use of sarin in Damascus

UN chief labels August 21 attack that killed hundreds a 'war crime' after investigation report confirms use of deadly nerve gas.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon speaks to reporters in New York as Ake Sellstrom, head of a UN weapons inspection team that confirmed the use of sarin gas in an attack on Damascus, looks on.  Justin Lane / EPA
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New York // United Nations weapons inspectors yesterday confirmed that chemical weapons have been used in Syria but they stopped short of assigning blame for their use.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council yesterday that the chemical attack on a rebel-held area of Damascus on August 21 was a “war crime”.

“This is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988,” Mr Ban said, referring to an attack in northern Iraq in which as many as 5,000 people are believed to have been killed.

Mr Ban spoke to the 15-member body after the release of a report by UN weapons inspectors that found “clear and convincing evidence” that sarin nerve gas was used on a “relatively large scale” in Damascus.

The report released yesterday is the first public confirmation by independent scientists that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian war. It did not say who was responsible for the attack as this was not part of its mandate.

Mr Ban also lauded the Russian and American plan agreed upon on Saturday to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014. But he warned that the UN resolution, which has yet to be drafted, must include “consequences” for Syria under chapter seven of the UN charter should it fail to comply.

Mr Ban did not detail what the consequences of non-compliance should be, but it is thought that any plan involving military action would be vetoed by Russia, a staunch Syrian ally.

Western and Arab governments claim it was carried out the Assad regime, while Syria and Russia say it was done by rebels to trigger US intervention.

The team of UN weapons inspectors led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom was already in Syria to investigate earlier alleged chemical attacks when the much larger attack occurred on August 21.

After days of delay, Syrian officials finally allowed them to examine the sites in Ghouta and other eastern suburbs of Damascus on the condition that they only confirm whether or not chemical weapons were used, not by whom.

“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 continuing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic ... against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale,” the report said.

While the report does not accuse the Syrian government outright, the details it provides offer strong new circumstantial evidence, including markings on fragments of the munitions suggesting they were from regime stocks and a trajectory suggesting the surface-to-surface rockets were launched from regime-held areas.

“The commission had access to a very large amount of evidence,” a UN Security Council diplomat told the Agence France-Presse. “Any reader of the report will be able to guess who carried it out.”

“That is not so important now,” added a second diplomat. “What is important is the negotiations for a council resolution on the Geneva accord.”

It is unclear if or how the report will affect negotiations in the Security Council on the disarmament resolution and how it would be enforced.

“The resolution in the Security Council will avoid mentioning military force despite the release of this report,” said Charlie Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Instead, non-compliance by Syria “would then require the UN to take further decisions about what measures are necessary. That leaves the door open and keeps everyone happy”.

“I don’t think it alters the calculus or would convince the Russians to threaten the use of force” in the resolution, said Mr Kupchan.

Mr Ban said the UN inspectors “collected clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing nerve agent sarin were used in the Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zalmalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus”.

According to the UN report, 85 per cent of the blood samples and 91 per cent of urine samples collected by the inspection team and tested in four labs across Europe showed traces of sarin gas.

The inspectors interviewed more than 50 survivors of the attacks, as well as medical personnel and first responders, and collected samples including hair, urine and blood. They also documented the effect sites and the remains of the missiles, and collected soil and other environmental samples.

The report identified the types of munitions used in the Ghouta attack, saying M14 artillery rockets were fired from a multi-barrel launcher as well as 330mm artillery rockets.

The inspectors will return to Syria to investigate other alleged incidents of chemical weapon use, including in Khan Al Assal, before issuing its final report, Mr Ban said.

There has been some dispute on the number of deaths in the August 21 attacks, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights putting the number at between 300 and 350, while US intelligence claims more than 1,400 were killed.

The UN report does not shed any new light on the question of casualites.