UN investigation team to depart soon for Syria

Aug 16 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring
Ariane Jugieux with David Cliff, London
Recent reports in the media indicate that the UN investigation team assigned to look into allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria is soon to depart for the country. The team’s deployment has been delayed for several months while the UN and the Syrian government have debated the scope of the team’s mission, which centers on an attack in the Syrian town of Khan al-Assal on 19 March. Both the Syrian government and the rebel opposition accuse the other of carrying out the attack, as well as several others, with the UN in total having now received around a dozen reports of chemical attacks across the country from various states.
On 27 March, Professor Ake Sellström, a Swedish arms control expert, was appointed as head of the UN Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic to review the attack on Khan al-Assal, but the team was denied access after reports the UN wanted also to inspect other locations.
In July, a visit to Syria by Professor Sellström and the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane ended with the Syrian government agreeing to the UN investigation team’s request to inspect three alleged sites, including Khan al-Assal. A team composed of ten experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organisation will now seek to determine whether chemical weapons were used, but they will not investigate which party was responsible.
Although the experts are limited in terms of both the number of locations they are allowed to visit and in what they will investigate, the mission being launched nevertheless represents the first opportunity to independently verify whether or not chemical weapons have been used in the country. While their use has been reported by a number of states (several of whom have carried out their own covert information-gathering), a UN judgement on the matter, reached by an international team of experts, will in many ways carry additional weight.
That said, evidence found may not be entirely conclusive as the UN team will have to contend with challenges such as time constraints and the need to factor in conflicting reports—from parties to the conflict and from those outside it. The time passed between incidents of alleged attacks and the arrival of the team may also have allowed evidence to degrade, making judgements of use more difficult.
In June, a report by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (which investigated human rights violations committed in Syria since the start of the conflict) highlighted its receipt of allegations of chemical weapons use by both government and anti-government forces. In May, prior to the relase of the report, one of its commissioners, Carla Del Ponte, suggested that the UN had seen strong indications that sarin was used by the opposition, which came as a blow to several governments aligned against Assad. 
The civil war in Syria is now well into its third year, and allegations of chemical weapons use are just one of its especially troubling aspects. Nonetheless, if proved, their use would raise the obvious issue of attribution—as well as a host of questions addressing what sort of action, or further action, could or should be taken in response.


Last changed: Aug 16 2013 at 10:57 PM