The Cable

U.N. Inspectors Get Green Light for Syrian Nerve Agent Hunt

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office said Sunday that U.N. chemical weapons experts will conduct an urgent inspection Monday in a Damascus suburb to determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack last week that left hundreds of people -- if not more than 1,000 -- dead.

The announcement followed high-level talks between Syrian authorities and the U.N.'s high representative for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, who traveled to Damascus this week to make the case for urgent on-site inspections in the suburb of Ghouta.

Syria has come under mounting pressure to allow the inspectors into the area, following reports that hundreds of civilians were asphyxiated in their sleep on Aug. 21 by unidentified gases. Images of large numbers of children lined up in the Syrian capital's morgues, their skin and lips blue from an apparent lack of oxygen, have generated intense international condemnation and fueled calls for international intervention in Syria.

On Friday, Syria's most powerful foreign patron, Russia, threw its weight behind the U.N. call for an investigation. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, convened an emergency meeting of his national security team to consider options. The Pentagon reinforced its military presence in the region, ordering a fourth naval war ship, equipped with ballistic missiles, into the eastern Mediterranean.

In today's statement, Ban's spokesman said the U.N. chief has instructed the U.N. chemical weapons team, led by the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, "to focus its attention on ascertaining the facts of the 21 August incident as its highest priority. The Mission is preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities, starting tomorrow, Monday, 26 August."

The Syrian government has "affirmed that it will provide the necessary cooperation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident," according to the statement. "All relevant parties equally share the responsibility of cooperating in urgently generating a safe environment for the Mission to do its job efficiently and providing all necessary information."

Rumors that chemical weapons were used in Syria date back to late December, when reports emerged indicating toxic agents had been used in the town of Homs. The United Nations established a chemical weapons team back in March, following a request by the Syrian government to investigate an alleged March 19 attack against Syrian forces near the city of Aleppo, in a place call Khan al-Assal. The U.N. expanded the investigation to include several other sites where Syrian authorities were accused by Syrian opposition groups of using chemical weapons against civilians.

After five months of negotiations over the scope of the investigation, Syria finally allowed a team of 20 inspectors, including chemical weapons specialists and medical experts from the World Health Organization, into the country. The team arrived on Sunday for a two-week visit to investigate three of some 13 locations where chemical weapons were suspected of being used. But the large death toll around Ghouta has spurred international calls for the investigators to go to the area.

The United States, Britain, France, Israel, and several other countries say that the preponderance of evidence implicates the Syrian government in using chemical weapons. But Syria and its key allies, Iran and Russia, have insisted that it's the Syrian rebels who have introduced chemical weapons into the two and a half-year conflict.

Until now, no internationally recognized agency has definitively proven that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. But an international relief group, Doctors Without Borders, which supports medical centers in the area, said that three of its clinics received about 3,600 patients with symptoms suggesting exposure to chemical weapons, including loss of breath, blurred vision, dilated pupils, and convulsions. Three hundred and fifty five of those patients died.

The U.N. weapons inspectors have a fairly restrictive mandate that only authorizes them to determine whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria, not to cast blame on the culprit. On Friday, the U.N.'s top security chief, Kevin Kennedy, said that the inspectors did not yet have a green light to travel to the area, saying a security assessment would have to be completed first. It remains unclear whether such an assessment has been concluded, but today's announcement by the United Nations that it will begin its inspection tomorrow indicated that the U.N. was satisfied by Syrian government and opposition assurances that its team would not be attacked.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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