The United Nations released its official report on chemical weapons use last month in Syria, determining that sarin gas was used against the civilian population, but stopping short of directly blaming the Syrian government for the incident.
The U.N. team who collected the samples in the days after the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed — according to U.S. estimates — approximately 1,400 civilians had been present in Syria originally to collect evidence of previous claims of chemical weapons usage. After an acrimonious debate with the Syrian government, the inspectors were finally allowed access to the sites to collect soil samples, biological samples, and interview witnesses.
According to the final report, U.N. weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom and his team determined that “chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic” against civilians “on a relatively large scale.” The report leaves out estimates of those killed, but clearly documented the effect that the attack had on the sleeping Syrian populace. The early morning hours of the attack and the weather itself conspired to make the attack especially deadly, as the dropping temperature allowed for the heavy gases to “stay close to the ground and penetrate into lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter.”
Most damning towards the Assad regime are the details of how the weapons were utilized. “Impacted and exploded surface-to-surface rockets, capable to carry a chemical payload, were found to carry Sarin,” according to the report. One such rocket showed evidence that “the rocket warhead appeared to function prior to impacting on the roof [of the building where it was found], releasing its contents and depositing the discovered fragments before travelling through the structure to its terminal location.” The Syrian rebels are not currently believed to possess rockets capable of mounting chemical agents onto before firing, adding to the circumstantial evidence that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government is to blame.
“This result leaves us with the deepest concern,” the report concludes.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon briefed the U.N. Security Council directly on the report this morning, calling Syria the most significant use of chemical weapons against civilians since 1988. “This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law,” Ban said while briefing the Council. “I trust all can join me in condemning this despicable crime. The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.”
The report comes just days after the United States and Russia agreed to a deal that would see Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal transported out of the country within the next year. Ban has in the past days accused Assad of being responsible for war crimes though not directly placing responsibility on the Syrian government for the Aug. 21 attack. This is contrary to Western governments, including the United States, who have stated for weeks now that it only could have been the Syrian government. While today’s report doesn’t contain direct confirmation of Assad’s culpability, it does track with U.S. officials who said in late August that the report wouldn’t “tell us anything we don’t already know.” Russia, meanwhile, still appears to be insisting that there is a chance the rebels launched the attack.
Following the briefing, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power informed the press that Sellstrom told the Council the sarin used in the Aug. 21 attack was more sophisticated than that used in the 1995 Tokyo subway terrorist attack and that Saddam Hussein used against his own people in 1988. Sellstrom also responded to a question from the Russian ambassador to say that the rockets used “bore none of the characteristics of improvised weapons,” according to Power and United Kingdom Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant. Both facts point further towards Assad’s culpability, the diplomats said.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, however, said that claims that the Syrian opposition were the ones who used chemical weapons in August should not be so easily shrugged off. Regarding the evidence Grant and Power presented regarding munitions and chemical sophistication, Churkin dismissed the charges. “They are not as scientific or grounded in reality as they could be,” he said. Churkin also angrily waved off questions about the munitions within the U.N. report possibly having Cyrillic markings. “We need to not jump to any conclusions,” he told reporters.
While the U.N. has not directly pointed to Assad in this finding, another of its bodies is working on determining precisely who launched the attack. The Independent International Commission for Inquiry in Syria has for months been collecting evidence and testimony of those who have fled Syria, documenting the war crimes taking place inside the country. On Tuesday, appearing before the U.N. Human Rights Council, commission chair Paulo Pinheiro told member-states that his group was investigating the use of chemical weapons as well.
“The Commission, while awaiting the report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons, is continuing its investigations regarding the perpetrator of the attacks and will report to this Council according to our mandate,” Pinheiro said.
This article has been updated to include the comments following the Security Council’s briefing.