Conflict & Justice

World sits in wait as Syria's Assad blocks UN chemical investigation


A Syrian rebel tries on a gas mask seized from a Syrian army factory in the northwestern province of Idlib on July 18, 2013. Western countries say they have handed over evidence to the UN that Bashar al-Assad's forces have used chemical arms in the two-year conflict. More than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, which morphed from a popular movement for change into an insurgency after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent.


Daniel Leal-Olivas

As Syria’s Bashar al-Assad eludes publicly responding to international demands that UN investigators—already in Syria—be allowed to inspect the scene of Wednesday’s alleged chemical attack, President Obama “brushes over” reminders that he once called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” not to be crossed, and the international community teeters at the edge of intervention.

Will the world move in, or will it stand down? That has not yet been made clear.

What is known is the following:

Despite the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement yesterday, announcing that the Syrian government is ready for “maximum” cooperation with an “objective investigation of all possible cases of use of chemical weapons on Syrian territory,” UN experts remain unable to access the Damascus suburbs where the attack took place.

Assad has not only avoided granting access to the UN team, he is also continuing aerial bombardment over the devastated suburbs—and potentially destroying vital evidence in the process.

Unremitting bombing of eastern Ghouta could compromise the UN’s ability to collect conclusive evidence of a chemical attack, according to Dan Kaszeta, managing director of U.K.-based security consultancy Strongpoint Security, who previously worked 20 years on chemical biological and nuclear defense in the US government and military.

“You have to think about, already, the time that has elapsed,” he explained in a phone interview with GlobalPost. “And, you know, this looks like it could have been a gas or a vapor, so it will already be very hard to find some useful bit of physical evidence. It’ll be next to impossible to find an actual sample of the poison because it’s a gas or a vapor, so, you must then look at the remaining fragments of the devices used to deliver the poison. Now, to get those after continuous bombing—good luck.”

As Syrian government forces’ offense presses on, Assad insists the allegations against him are “ridiculous and naive, unscientific, illogical and subjective”—merely a conspiracy of the opposition meant to draw attention to its cause.

But Assad’s unwillingness to grant UN weapons inspectors complete and immediate access, coupled with his persistent shelling campaign, is not working in favor of his claims.

The United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, William Hague said this morning that he now believes Assad’s regime was behind the attack.

“It seems the Assad regime has something to hide,” Hague told the BBC. “Why else have they not allowed the UN team to go there?”

“I know that some people in the world would like to say that this is some kind of conspiracy brought about by the opposition in Syria," he continued. "I think the chances of that are vanishingly small and so we do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime."

Eliot Higgins, a UK-based blogger who has been investigating the Syrian civil war for two years, and who has gained legitimacy by verifying video and photographs coming from the ground, is also looking toward Assad.

“It seems very likely to me, any claims that the opposition were responsible seem to lack any credible evidence,” he told GlobalPost.

Higgins, who operates under the pseudonym “Brown Moses,” after the Frank Zappa song, has in the last two years taught himself about arms, compiled a database of approximately 550 YouTube channels used by activists, armed groups and media organizations in Syria, and built a network of contacts among arms specialists to assist him in determining accuracy.

He has since become a trusted source among journalists—who he says now also send him bits of information they find—and has posted various blogs on how to conclude the authenticity of a video.

The US, France and Turkey are also keeping a watchful eye.

Representative Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, yesterday urged the US to follow through on threats should the reports prove factual.

"If reports are credible that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons resulting in the estimated deaths of hundreds of civilians, then clearly a red line has been crossed again," Engel said. "The U.S. has two options: Continue to largely stand on the sidelines as the regime slaughters its own people, or tip the balance of power against a brutal dictator by degrading its ability to attack civilians. If we are to salvage what remains of our credibility in the region, we must act soon."

Israel’s minister for intelligence and strategic affairs said yesterday that “intelligence estimates concluded that chemical weapons indeed were used.”

In Germany, Turkish and German foreign ministers also demanded a UN investigation, with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also calling for new sanctions.

"Several red lines have been crossed — if sanctions are not imposed immediately, then we will lose our power to deter," he said, going on to add that he told UN chief Ban Ki-moon that “the UN must not behave hesitantly anymore, sanctions must now be imposed."

Frustrated by the west’s continued hesitance—especially considering the US has determined that Assad has targeted civilians and used chemical weapons in the past—many are asking, “if this isn’t a red line, what is?”

Approximately 1,300 people perished following the 3:00am 18-missile attack, most who have now been buried in mass graves.

Doctors have described the symptoms they treated to Human Rights Watch—symptoms including suffocation, constricted, irregular, and infrequent breathing, muscle spasms, nausea, frothing at the mouth, fluid coming out of noses and eyes, convulsing, dizziness, blurred vision, and red and irritated eyes and pin-point pupils.

These symptoms, HRW said, are consistent with nerve agent poisoning.

In one doctor’s account in the HRW report, it said medical teams treated the injured with Atropine until the clinic ran out of supplies.

The (Disclaimer: this video contains strong graphic images) video footage published on Eliot Higgins’ website confirms the chaos in the immediate hours following the attack—mostly children scattered about the floors and tables of makeshift clinics, some dying, others already dead. Men scrambled to rinse the victims clean of poison, held and cried over limp, lifeless bodies.

Still, the US cannot afford to get involved “too soon,” Obama told CNN.

"Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region,” he explained. "The United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders. But that does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately. We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests."

Meanwhile, European officials have said they will only give a couple more days before demanding a stronger mandate and a more forceful response.

They listed fast-approaching options for response but remain doubtful of their ability to take concrete action without US backing.

"Without U.S. firepower, there's little we can do," Reuters quoted officials as saying. "So long as the Americans are of the view that nothing should be done, I don't see the British government pressing them ... And we're not capable of doing anything without them .. There's absolutely no appetite from any party for intervention anywhere."

But as the international community holds its breath—toes dangling over the edge just before interference—Syrian opposition fighters refuse to hold still along with them.

Assad’s opponents began attempting to smuggle tissue samples from Wednesday’s poisoning to UN inspectors this morning.

When asked if the smuggled samples would be useful, despite not being able to be legally considered evidence, Dan Kaszeta said it is complicated.

“They’re not terribly helpful,” he said. “Because if there is a mystery sample you have to wonder: How was this sample taken? Did the person who collected it use gloves? Did they use the same needle to draw blood samples from five different bodies? How clean was the container? How was it transported—was it on ice, in a bag or a jar? The person probably doesn’t know the right process, which is not to say that it is impossible to examine. Given to the right laboratory, the smuggled sample could be useful.”

Nevertheless, he continued, “we need the samples. Some people have sent them to hospitals but this is not an easy thing to do—hospitals are not really equipped to take on this kind of investigation. This is CSI Damascus, only the crime scene has been uncontrolled for days.”