An effort by the Obama administration to reinforce the powers
of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Syria Wednesday evening foundered in the face
of Russian and Chinese opposition in the U.N. Security Council, according to
Seizing on rebel claims that Syrian authorities massacred
hundreds of civilians by firing chemically-laced rockets onto a Damascus
suburb, the United States joined Britain and France in calling for an emergency
session of the U.N. Security Council to rally international support for an
investigation into the incident. The three Western powers also wrote a letter
to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, signed by 32 other governments, calling
for an urgent investigation. But the efforts failed to result in anything other
than a tepid statement from the Security Council thanks to some final edits by
the Russians and Chinese.
The Obama administration's goal was to have a U.N. chemical
weapons team, which was already in Syria to investigate other chemical weapons
allegations, launch a probe into the new allegations. That team, headed by
Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom,
arrived in Damascus on Sunday.
The United States, which was represented by the second highest-ranking American official at the United Nations, Ambassador Rosemary Di Carlo, circulated a draft
resolution, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, that called on U.N. Secretary
General Ban Ki-moon to "urgently
take the steps necessary for today's attack to be investigated by the U.N.
mission on the ground." But it also would have applied pressure on Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad to grant
the inspectors greater latitude. The draft would have called on all combatants
in Syria to "allow safe, full and unfettered access to the U.N. mission and to
comply with all requests for evidence and information. " It also would have
underscored the "importance of a fully independent and impartial [investigation] into all
allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria."
In the end, the most strenuous provisions of the American draft
were stripped out during closed-door negotiations with Russia and China.
Instead, the 15-nation council issued a milder statement that made no reference
to today's alleged chemical weapons attack. The council merely
expressed "a strong concern" about "the allegations [of chemical weapons use]
and the general sense there must be clarity on what happened." The statement
also did little to strengthen the inspector's mandate, but simply "welcomed the
determination of the [U.N.] secretary general to ensure a thorough, impartial and
Clearly miffed, National Security Advisor Susan Rice took to
Twitter to declare that the "Syrian government must allow the UN
access to the attack site to investigate. Those responsible will be held
That sentiment was also echoed by U.N. Deputy Secretary General
Jan Eliasson, whotold reporters after Security Council
consultations that "we see the need to investigate this as soon as possible."
He added that "We are in contact with the Syrian Government. We hope that all
other parties will cooperate." But as long as Russia and China are watering
down Security Council statements, Syria's cooperation appears unlikely.
U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts are looking
into claims of a new and massive chemical weapons attack that's left hundreds
dead. From the limited evidence they've seen so far, those reports appear to be
accurate. And that would make the strike on the East Ghouta region, just east
of Damascus, the biggest chemical weapons attack in decades.
The early analysis is based on preliminary reports,
photography and video evidence, and conclusions are prone to change if and when
direct access to the victims is granted. Over the past nine months, the Syrian
opposition has alleged dozens of times that the Assad regime has attacked them
with nerve agents. Only a handful of those accusations have been confirmed;
several have fallen away under close scrutiny. But Wednesday's strike, which local
opposition groups say killed an estimated 1,300 people, may be different.
"No doubt it's a chemical release of some variety -- and a
military release of some variety," said Gwyn Winfield, the editor of CRBNe
World, the trade journal of the unconventional weapons community.
While the Obama administration says it has conclusive proof
that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in the recent past, the White
House has been reluctant to take major action in response to those relatively
small-scale attacks. ("As long as they keep body count at a certain level, we
won't do anything," an American intelligence official told
Foreign Policy earlier this week.) But this attack appears to be anything but
small-scale. If allegations about this latest attack prove to be accurate, the strike could be the moment when the Assad
regime finally crossed the international community's "red line," and triggered
outside invention in the civil war that has killed over a hundred thousand
Videos and pictures allegedly taken from the Ghouta incident
show young victims who are barely able to breathe and, in some cases,
twitching. Close-up photos show their pupils are severely constricted. All of
these are classic signs of exposure to a nerve agent like sarin. And sarin is
the Assad regime's chemical weapon of choice.
"There's no smoking gun here, but it's all consistent with
nerve gas exposure," a U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. "This video is consistent with all of the other ones
where we believe it [chemical weapons use] actually happened."
The Syrian regime has called claims of the attack "absolutely baseless."
According to the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based firm
that lobbies on behalf of the rebels, the attack was designed to soften
positions in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta ahead of a ground attack and
involved the deployment of four Grad 122mm rockets at about 2:20 a.m.
The group's media director, Dan Layman, told The Cable that a doctor treating
patients on the ground reported that the chemical solution in the attacks were
"extremely high" concentrations of sarin as opposed to more chemically-diluted
attacks in previous months.
"Because of the intensity of the gas, a majority of victims
were found with heavy respiratory secretions, myosis, and muscular spasms,"
Layman said, after speaking with the director of the Douma city medical office,
a man who goes by the nom de guerre Khaled ad-Doumi. "Atropine, the chemical
used to curb the effects of these chemical attacks, has had only limited
However, Winfield, after examining video and photo evidence of
the attack, doubted that pure sarin was involved. "There doesn't seem to be
quite enough mucus or saliva for a pure organophosphate," he said, referring to the class of chemical to which nerve gases belong. "No doubt
it's a chemical release of some variety ... But it's too weak for a pure sarin release."
Others are more skeptical that a nerve agent was used, such as
Michael Elleman, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic
Studies. "One of the consequences of a fatal nerve attack is you lose all
muscle control and therefore you defecate and you urinate all over yourself,"
he told The Cable. "And I didn't see
evidence of the victims soiling themselves, if you will, which kind of puzzles
But he added that the attack does appear to have been a chemical one. "If indeed 600 [or more] people were killed, the attack would have had to involve a large amount of chemical agent," Elleman said. "Which means it would have had to be delivered in a very deliberate fashion, and that would be a strong indicator that it was deliberate use or not accidental use, or just spraying munitions, which may be what happened in the past – we don't know."
Still, the U.S. intelligence official said the attack did not
seem to be the result of inhalation or tear gas. "If it was smoke inhalation,
they'd be more sooty or scorched. If it was tear gas, you'd see skin
inflammation around the mucus membranes."
Already, the scale of the allegations has prompted a stern
response in Washington where Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of President Obama's "red line" remarks regarding chemical weapons use. The White House is now calling for a formal United Nations
investigation. "The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds
of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces,
including by the use of chemical weapons, near Damascus earlier today," Josh
Earnest, deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement. "Today, we
are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new
In a statement, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon said he was
"shocked to hear of the alleged use today of chemical weapons in the suburbs of
Damascus," and assured that a UN chemical weapons team in Damascus was
discussing the matter with Syrian authorities.
The statement noted that the chief U.N. weapons inspector,
Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is currently probing the alleged use of nerve
gas in the village of Khan Al-Assal and two other undisclosed locations.
However, it remains unlikely that Syria, which has refused previous requests
for chemical weapons investigations made by Britain and France, will permit the
inspectors to visit the new site. It is also uncertain whether the U.N.
Security Council, which is deeply divided over Syria, will take any meaningful
In any event, the White House is already facing even more
pressure from Congress to act decisively in response to the alleged
allegations. "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," Democrat Eliot Engel, the
ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "If
we are to salvage what remains of our credibility in the region, we must act