U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that U.N. weapons inspectors have obtained "overwhelming" evidence that chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 attack that killed large numbers of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. The inspection team, according to a U.N.-based diplomatic source, has uncovered traces of the nerve agent sarin, a key agent in the chemical weapons arsenal of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
"I believe that the report will be an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used, even though I cannot say it publicly at this time," Ban said. Ban — who made the remarks in a speech before the Women’s International Forum — thought he was speaking in a closed-door meeting. But the session was being broadcast live on an internal U.N. television feed.
It’s the first time the United Nations has officially declared that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. And the acknowledgment comes two days before the U.N.’s chief weapons inspector, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is scheduled on Sunday to present the U.N. chief with a report on his team’s findings in Syria. Ban will present a briefing on the team’s finding to the U.N. Security Council on Monday morning at 11 a.m.
As Foreign Policy reported in this week, the report is expected to point to the Assad regime as the culprits behind the Aug. 21 attack.
Ban did not say who was responsible for using chemical weapons or what nerve agent was used. But he did accuse Assad of having responsibility for crimes against humanity during Syria’s 2½-year-long civil war, which has killed more than 100,00 people and introduced chemical warfare into battle for the first time in decades.
"He has committed many crimes against humanity," Ban said. "Therefore I’m sure that there will be surely the process of accountability when everything is over, but at this time first and foremost we have to help the fighting stop and dialogue, talking, begin."
Another diplomatic source, who is familiar with the team’s findings, said that the inspectors have collected multiple samples of environmental and biomedical samples indicating that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack. American authorities claim more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, were killed in those strikes. While the scale of the killing is in dispute, with some estimates in the lower hundreds, there is broad agreement among governments that chemical weapons were used in Ghouta.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the deliberations, said that the team has compiled significant circumstantial evidence indicating Syrian government complicity in the attacks. "The report will clearly say that it is sarin," the Assad regime’s chemical weapon of choice, the diplomat said. "It clearly hints that the regime is the perpetrator."
The diplomat said that the finding would not be sufficient to end the debate in the Security Council on who used chemical weapons. Monday’s Security Council meeting, the diplomat added, will take place "behind closed doors" so there will "be big room for spinning."
Western intelligence agencies hold that Syria maintains large stocks of sarin, VX, and mustard gas. But the Syrian government and its chief political patron, Russia, have denied that the Syrian government used chemical weapons. They claim that Syrian rebels have introduced nerve agents into the country’s civil war in order to induce the United States and other outside powers to intervene in the conflict.
Today’s revelations come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are trying to hammer out an agreement to place Syria’s chemical weapons program under international control and ultimately see them destroyed. Those talks have been complicated by the Syrian president’s demand, issued Thursday, that the United States end threats against Syria before Syria will agree to relinquish control of its chemical weapons. Syria will only comply with the arms control pact now under negotiation, Assad said, when "we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also cease arms deliveries to terrorists."
Kerry and Lavrov, however, sought to highlight progress in their chemical weapons talks, which are ongoing, announcing this morning that the two men would meet again in New York to discuss the prospects of reviving their efforts to organize a major Syrian peace summit in Geneva.
Ban, meanwhile, voiced growing frustration at the big powers’ inability to reach agreement on a plan to end the killing in Syria. "It’s an incredible situation that the Security Council has not been able to adopt any single resolution, even humanitarian, even humanitarian issues, not to mention political and security issues," he said. "They are divided. I am very troubled by this. This is a failure by the United Nations."