- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter., John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The long-awaited United Nations report on the deadly Aug. 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus does not directly blame either the Syrian government or the Syrian opposition, but the scrupulous level of detail in the report provides new evidence pointing to a military-orchestrated assault rather than a rebel-executed chemical weapons attack. In particular, analysts speaking with Foreign Policy latched onto the report’s conclusions regarding the quantities of toxic gas in the attack, the type of rockets used, and the trajectory of the missile vectors.
"This is consistent with an alleged use by Syrian government troops," Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons, told FP after reviewing the report.
The U.N. inspectors’ report, which was presented this morning to the Security Council, found "clear and convincing evidence" that rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The U.N. team compiled evidence from a broad range of sources, including several surface-to-surface rockets "capable of delivering significant chemical payloads" and statements from more than 50 victims, first responders, and medical specialists. Evidence of sarin was identified in the majority of environmental and biomedical samples, including blood, urine, and hair, collected by the U.N. team.
The lethally of the attack, the report noted, was exacerbated by the morning chill on Aug. 21, which contributed to pressing the air downward, where it poured into residential homes and basements, killing people in their sleep.
For Trapp, the combination of the report’s weapons data (rockets designed for liquid-fill delivery and traces of sarin found on the rockets), the significant number of rockets fired, and the way the weapons were used (at a time of day when stable atmospheric conditions were expected to maximize the effect of the chemical attack) speaks volumes. "That all points to a weapon that came from a military program, used by units that understand and have training in chemical warfare operations," he said. "If an opposition group had been the perpetrator, it would have required: (A) readiness to kill large numbers of people in an opposition-controlled area, (B) access to a significant number of chemical weapons rockets from a Syrian army stockpile, and (C) some training in how and when to use chemical weapons to maximum effect" — capabilities Trapp strongly doubts the rebels have.
Other analysts, such as Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and Jeff White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed with Trapp.
"The rebels in Syria can get off a few mortar rounds here and there. On a good day they might even fire off a salvo of recoilless rifles," Harmer told FP. "But they don’t have the ability to deploy mass indirect fires with rockets, which is how this sarin gas attack occurred in Damascus. The regime does."
White noted that the trajectory of the rounds fired on targets in Moadamiyah and Ayn Terma point squarely to regime locations in the north and west. "I suppose the apologists for the regime will say they could have been fired from anywhere along those trajectories, but this certainly supports the US intell conclusion that the rockets came from regime territory," he said.
The Russians were not eager to draw this conclusion. Moscow’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said that his country "strongly condemns" the use of such weapons but cautioned that others should "not to jump to any conclusion." He scolded his Western counterparts, saying, "Some colleagues jumped to their conclusions when they were saying the [U.N.] report definitely proves that it was the government forces who used chemical weapons."
Churkin also deflected questions about the inspectors finding that some of the Syrian artillery rounds used in the attack bore inscriptions in Cyrillic, which could be a mark of Russian manufacture. He said that the U.N. needed to have chemical weapons experts "look into it," among several other questions.
Western nations, meanwhile, have been quick to latch onto the details of the report and blame the Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Shortly after the report’s publication, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said that the underlying evidence presented by the U.N. inspectors — including the trajectory of sarin-filled rockets that targeted Ghouta –"leaves no doubt" that the Syrian government is responsible. "When you look at the facts, the quantities of toxic gas, the complexities of the [chemical mixtures], and the trajectory of the [missile] vectors, all that leaves absolutely no doubt as to the origin of the attack" he told French radio station RTL. The report, Fabius added, "confirms the position of those of us who have said the regime is guilty."
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters outside the Security Council that the report "confirms unmistakenly that chemical weapons were used in Syria on Aug. 21." Power said that while the inspectors had no mandate to assign blame, the "technical details of the U.N. report make it clear that only the regime could have carried out this large-scale chemical weapons attack."
Power said that one of the weapons used in the attack, a 122-millimeter rocket, has been used by the regime in previous attacks. She said that a review of thousands of online videos by American authorities has shown no evidence of the opposition "manufacturing or using this style of rocket."
Power also said that the U.N. chief inspector, Ake Sellstrom, responding to a question from Churkin, Russia’s U.N. envoy, said that the quality of the sarin used in the attack was "higher than that of the sarin used by Saddam Hussein’s program. Sellstrom also stated that weapons obtained on the site of the scene of this monstrous crime were professionally made. He said that they bore none of the characteristics of improvised weapons."
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who did not have a mandate to assign blame for the attack, limited his statements to undirected moral outrage.
"The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale," Ban told reporters. "This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law. It is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988 — and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century. The international community has a responsibility to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare."