U.N. Slowing Its Own Chemical Weapons Investigation In Syria

U.N. Slowing Its Own Chemical Weapons Investigation In Syria

The world’s governments are demanding that Syria immediately let United Nations inspectors onto the scene of alleged chemical attacks that killed as many as 1,800. But even if Bashar al-Assad’s regime gave the inspectors permission to visit the disputed battlefields right now, they still couldn’t leave. The U.N. is blocking its own inspectors, at least for the moment.

Kevin Kennedy, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who heads the U.N. Department of Safety and Security, told a small group of reporters at U.N. headquarters on Friday that he hasn’t given the inspection team a green light to visit the site of the supposed attacks. His office is still carrying out a security assessment to see if it is safe enough to go.

"It’s an active war zone in Damascus," said Kennedy, who has gained extensive experience managing U.N. humanitarian operations in the world’s deadliest trouble spots over the past 20 years. "I was there a few months ago: you hear every day impacts, shells, there might be 10 in a day, you might hear 80 in a day. You can see airstrikes, you can see artillery. You get shot at, I was only there for 3 and ½ days as a visitor and my car was shot, we were shot at twice," including once by an unidentified sniper.

Britain and France issued strong statements in support of allowing the U.N. investigators to visit the Damascus suburb where locals say hundreds, and possibly thousands, were killed with nerve gas. "We do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said during an interview on Friday. Even the Assad regime’s biggest ally, Russia, is now calling on "the Syrian government to cooperate with the U.N. chemical experts," as Moscow’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

But Kennedy said it’s not quite that simple. "There’s places in Syria we’ve not gone to for months simply because it’s just not safe to go and we can’t mitigate the risk," he said.

On Thursday night, U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon pleaded with the Syrian government to "extend its full cooperation so that the mission can swiftly investigate this most recent incident."

"This is a grave challenge to the entire international community," he added. "I can think of no good reason what any party-either government or opposition forces-would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter."

Meanwhile, his inspectors wait — as the world tries to figure out why either side in Syria’s awful civil war would’ve launched a chemical attack with U.N. inspectors so close by. (Russia is hinting at rebel responsibility for the attack, while the U.S. and its allies are blaming Assad’s forces.) "We’re still trying to work out why the regime chose to do it on this scale with the U.N. in spitting distance, but there are a couple of working theories," an American intelligence official told The Cable. "One is that this was planned well in advance and no one called it off at the last minute. Another is that most of the regime military assets are off fighting in the north of the country, so they had to resort to using chemical weapons as a force multiplier" — a way to fight off large numbers of rebels with a comparative handful of troops.

In recent weeks, some military analysts have noted the opposition gaining strength in and around the Damascus suburbs. Perhaps Assad noted it as well, the thinking goes, and decided to try to put an end to it. 

The U.N. chemical weapons team, headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Damascus on Sunday to begin a two-week investigation into more than a dozen allegations of chemical weapons use. Sellstrom, who has received assurances from the Syrian government that he can visit three of those sites, has appealed to the Assad regime to let his team visit a cluster of towns in the suburbs of Damascus to test claims by opposition figures that more than 1,000 civilians were killed in a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government. Syrian officials have dismissed the claims as "fabricated," noting that conducted a chemical weapons strike while U.N. weapons inspectors were in the county would defy logic.

But outside observers, reviewing YouTube videos of the attacks and the accounts of the doctors who treated the victims, are becoming increasingly convinced that chemical weapons were used. "All of this evidence does suggest some kind of chemical agent," Charles Duelfer, the former chief weapons inspector for the United States, told Al Jazeera America on Thursday night. "These are not the effect of conventional munitions. There are no external wounds. There are all the signature symptoms of nerve damage."

Now it’s up to the U.N. inspectors to prove it. In a sign that Sellstrom has yet to prevail upon the Syrian government to visit the sites, Ban dispatched his top disarmament chief, Angela Kane, to Damascus to make the case for access. In the meantime, Reuters reporters, Assad opponents have managed to "smuggle tissue samples to U.N. inspectors from victims of Wednesday’s reported mass poisoning."

Kennedy said his department "will do a security risk assessment based on what we know, what we can see….We will make a recommendation whether, and this goes for any mission, not so much the Syrian mission, if it is a go or a no go." Asked if it were possible the inspectors would not get a green light, he said "we’ll see what the security assessment says about that when it comes out. It’s a moveable feast."

With additional reporting by John Hudson

Follow Colum Lynch on Twitter: @columlynch