Reports from Syria on Wednesday indicated that the Ghouta region may have seen the deadliest chemical weapons attack in decades just 15 minutes away from where a United Nations team was preparing to investigate earlier possible attacks. Numbers vary, but some within the Syrian opposition claim that as many as 1,700 people were killed in the attack. Videos and photographs of dead men, women, and children circulated the internet on Wednesday adding some credence to the claims.
The proximity of the possible strike has lead observers and members of the opposition alike to question why the U.N. team can’t just hop in their white-painted vehicles and drive to the site to see for themselves what had taken place. The simple answer: they didn’t do so because they can’t.
The reasoning behind this perplexing inability to perform what one would assume is their job lies in the mandate that the team negotiated with the Syrian government to grant them entry into Syria in the first place. It took months for the accord, the full details of which remain out of the public domain, to be reached. Prior to the conclusion of those talks, Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom and his team spent weeks cooling their heels on Cyprus, waiting for the green light from Damascus to begin their investigation.
It’s ironic that such a to-do would be made over precisely where the U.N. team can investigate, as it was the Syrian government that first requested an international investigation to take place. Following March 19 reports of an alleged use of chemical agents against Syrian forces, Damascus requested that inspectors be sent to the site. When rebels countered with their own requests, Syria quickly backtracked on their initial demands, leading to the stand-off that lasted for five months.
Hampering the U.N.’s ability to investigate the new site is that under the agreement reached the U.N. has limited its investigation to the March 19 site and two others which have yet to be disclosed, despite Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s earlier insistence that the team be granted “unfettered” access. Also, the U.N. has repeatedly insisted that the focus of the investigation is on whether or not chemical weapons were used and not determining who used them. As it stands, any deviation from its agreement with Syria could see the U.N. team kicked out of the country all together.
Syria, for its part, has agreed to aid the U.N. team’s investigations, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. This assistance would come in the form of logistical support and “scope of activity,” a phrase that could imply limitations on what the inspectors will be allowed to view.
The White House on Wednesday said it was “deeply concerned” about the reports of chemical weapons usage in Syria in a statement from deputy press secretary Josh Earnest. “Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons must be held accountable,” it continued. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki took it a step further in her daily press briefing, challenging the Syrian government to provide the U.N. team full access. “If they have nothing to hide, they should be providing the team with unfettered access,” she said.
The U.S. and other countries called for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday afternoon about the reports, at which U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Ellaison briefed the Council on the developments. Following the meeting, the United States, United Kingdom, and France began circulating a letter to Secretary-General Ban, which 34 other member-states have so far signed, calling on him to launch an immediate investigation under his powers related to chemical weapons. Earlier in the day, the Secretary-General’s spokesperson had said that Ban was “shocked to hear the reports” of chemical weapons use, though did not say the U.N. would be pressuring Damascus to expand the investigation team’s mandate.
Russia remained a roadblock to a united approach to the matter, however, first working with China to completely neuter a U.S.-drafted resolution demanding full access for the U.N. team, then blocking passage of a much milder press statement that would have called for a full investigation into the matter. A spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said that the reports of an attack were part of an “information campaign” from the opposition, designed to further isolate the Syrian regime.