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

The Cable

U.N. Slowing Its Own Chemical Weapons Investigation In Syria

The world's governments are demanding that Syria immediately let United Nations inspectors onto the scene of alleged chemical attacks that killed as many as 1,800. But even if Bashar al-Assad's regime gave the inspectors permission to visit the disputed battlefields right now, they still couldn't leave. The U.N. is blocking its own inspectors, at least for the moment.

Kevin Kennedy, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who heads the U.N. Department of Safety and Security, told a small group of reporters at U.N. headquarters on Friday that he hasn't given the inspection team a green light to visit the site of the supposed attacks. His office is still carrying out a security assessment to see if it is safe enough to go.

"It's an active war zone in Damascus," said Kennedy, who has gained extensive experience managing U.N. humanitarian operations in the world's deadliest trouble spots over the past 20 years. "I was there a few months ago: you hear every day impacts, shells, there might be 10 in a day, you might hear 80 in a day. You can see airstrikes, you can see artillery. You get shot at, I was only there for 3 and ½ days as a visitor and my car was shot, we were shot at twice," including once by an unidentified sniper.

Britain and France issued strong statements in support of allowing the U.N. investigators to visit the Damascus suburb where locals say hundreds, and possibly thousands, were killed with nerve gas. "We do believe that this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime on a large scale," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said during an interview on Friday. Even the Assad regime's biggest ally, Russia, is now calling on "the Syrian government to cooperate with the U.N. chemical experts," as Moscow's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. 

But Kennedy said it's not quite that simple. "There's places in Syria we've not gone to for months simply because it's just not safe to go and we can't mitigate the risk," he said.

On Thursday night, U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon pleaded with the Syrian government to "extend its full cooperation so that the mission can swiftly investigate this most recent incident."

"This is a grave challenge to the entire international community," he added. "I can think of no good reason what any party-either government or opposition forces-would decline this opportunity to get to the truth of the matter."

Meanwhile, his inspectors wait -- as the world tries to figure out why either side in Syria's awful civil war would've launched a chemical attack with U.N. inspectors so close by. (Russia is hinting at rebel responsibility for the attack, while the U.S. and its allies are blaming Assad's forces.) "We're still trying to work out why the regime chose to do it on this scale with the U.N. in spitting distance, but there are a couple of working theories," an American intelligence official told The Cable. "One is that this was planned well in advance and no one called it off at the last minute. Another is that most of the regime military assets are off fighting in the north of the country, so they had to resort to using chemical weapons as a force multiplier" -- a way to fight off large numbers of rebels with a comparative handful of troops.

In recent weeks, some military analysts have noted the opposition gaining strength in and around the Damascus suburbs. Perhaps Assad noted it as well, the thinking goes, and decided to try to put an end to it. 

The U.N. chemical weapons team, headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Damascus on Sunday to begin a two-week investigation into more than a dozen allegations of chemical weapons use. Sellstrom, who has received assurances from the Syrian government that he can visit three of those sites, has appealed to the Assad regime to let his team visit a cluster of towns in the suburbs of Damascus to test claims by opposition figures that more than 1,000 civilians were killed in a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government. Syrian officials have dismissed the claims as "fabricated," noting that conducted a chemical weapons strike while U.N. weapons inspectors were in the county would defy logic.

But outside observers, reviewing YouTube videos of the attacks and the accounts of the doctors who treated the victims, are becoming increasingly convinced that chemical weapons were used. "All of this evidence does suggest some kind of chemical agent," Charles Duelfer, the former chief weapons inspector for the United States, told Al Jazeera America on Thursday night. "These are not the effect of conventional munitions. There are no external wounds. There are all the signature symptoms of nerve damage."

Now it's up to the U.N. inspectors to prove it. In a sign that Sellstrom has yet to prevail upon the Syrian government to visit the sites, Ban dispatched his top disarmament chief, Angela Kane, to Damascus to make the case for access. In the meantime, Reuters reporters, Assad opponents have managed to "smuggle tissue samples to U.N. inspectors from victims of Wednesday's reported mass poisoning."

Kennedy said his department "will do a security risk assessment based on what we know, what we can see....We will make a recommendation whether, and this goes for any mission, not so much the Syrian mission, if it is a go or a no go." Asked if it were possible the inspectors would not get a green light, he said "we'll see what the security assessment says about that when it comes out. It's a moveable feast."

With additional reporting by John Hudson

Follow Colum Lynch on Twitter: @columlynch