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Barred From Syria, Advance U.N. Chemical Weapons Investigators Retreat From Staging Point
WASHINGTON – After waiting for weeks to enter Syria, an advance team of specialists has taken a step back from what was intended to be a broad U.N. probe of allegations of chemical weapons use in the nation’s civil war.
The small team left their staging ground for the operation in Cyprus earlier this week and there is still no word on whether the Syrian government will allow the inquiry to go ahead, according to Ahmet Üzümcü, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The deployed investigators, including OPCW and U.N. experts, had hoped to prepare for work by a larger group of specialists.
The government of President Bashar Assad requested the investigation following the March 19 deaths of about 30 people in the northern village of Khan al-Assal. The regime and rebels battling to depose Assad charged the other side with carrying out a rocket strike using a chemical warfare agent.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon agreed to the request in March, but ultimately decided that the team led by Swedish scientist and disarmament specialist Åke Sellström would examine claims of several chemical incidents around the country, rather than investigating only the one incident as Damascus had requested.
Other reported incidents include that in the key battleground of Homs in December and three more following the Khan al-Assal incident, according to a policy report by Cindy Vestergaard, a visiting fellow at the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program. The U.N. team would have sought to determine whether the reports are correct but would not have looked to assign blame.
Damascus, however, has demanded the focus remain solely on the March 19 incident. Because of the dispute, the advance team waited nearly a month before leaving Cyprus, according to Üzümcü, whose Hague, Netherlands-based organization monitors compliance with the 188-nation Chemical Weapons Convention.
A total of 15 OPCW staffers were made available for the investigation; personnel from the World Health Organization are also intended to participate.
“At the moment this team is collecting information from different sources. … And they may also go to neighboring countries,” Üzümcü said during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They will, I’m sure, prepare a report for the secretary general later on."
“It’s unfortunate they didn’t have the opportunity to go inside and interview the victims, and to collect samples and begin analyzing them,” he added.
The full team remains on standby to enter Syria, Üzümcü said. He noted, though, that material such as environmental samples from water or soil will degrade over time, making it harder to determine whether chemical weapons incidents occurred.
Syria, which has not joined the global prohibition on chemical weapons, is believed to hold as much as 1,000 metric tons of nerve and blister agents dispersed across its territory, the OPCW chief said.
The United Kingdom and other nations have said there is a growing body of evidence to support allegations that Syrian forces have used sarin nerve agent in the civil war. Others say there is still significant uncertainty about what has happened. The Obama administration says clarity is needed to determine whether its "red line" on Syrian chemical weapons use or proliferation has been breached.
“We don’t know who used what … and we don’t have the ability to verify it,” Üzümcü said.
His organization has no mandate to assist Syrian citizens or opposition fighters in defending themselves against chemical weapons within the country. Personnel, though, could provide support to OPCW member nations bordering Syria, Üzümcü said. Staffers have conducted tabletop exercises on their response to such a request.
Speaking at the event, Vestergaard noted that verified chemical attacks in Syria would mean an end to a quarter-century in which such weapons have not been used in warfare. The last known use of chemical weapons was during the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq.
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