U.N. Report Details Sarin Gas Use in Syria, but Doesn’t Assign Blame

Philip Bump, Atlantic Wire
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Philip Bump, Atlantic Wire
Sept. 16, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

The United Na­tions’ re­port on the al­leged Au­gust 21 chem­ic­al weapons at­tack in a sub­urb of Dam­a­cus sug­gests that it was not just al­leged. Call­ing the at­tack a “war crime,” Sec­ret­ary Gen­er­al Ban Ki-Moon noted that evid­ence of the use of sar­in gas was “over­whelm­ing and in­dis­put­able.” By whom, however, isn’t spe­cified.

Ban presen­ted the re­port to the United Na­tions Se­cur­ity Coun­cil in a private meet­ing on Monday morn­ing, but made his re­marks avail­able to the pub­lic. The re­port it­self, also avail­able on­line, walks through the evid­ence col­lec­ted and ana­lyzed by the UN team that was already in the coun­try re­search­ing an­oth­er al­leged use of out­lawed weapons when the Au­gust 21 at­tack oc­curred.


The Mis­sion has con­cluded that chem­ic­al weapons were used on a re­l­at­ively large scale in the Ghouta area of Dam­as­cus in the con­text of the on­go­ing con­flict in Syr­ia. The at­tack res­ul­ted in nu­mer­ous cas­u­al­ties, par­tic­u­larly among ci­vil­ians. …
Sur­viv­ors re­por­ted that fol­low­ing an at­tack with shelling, they quickly ex­per­i­enced a range of symp­toms, in­clud­ing short­ness of breath, dis­or­i­ent­a­tion, eye ir­rit­a­tion, blurred vis­ion, naus­ea, vomit­ing and gen­er­al weak­ness. Many even­tu­ally lost con­scious­ness. First re­spon­ders de­scribed see­ing a large num­ber of in­di­vidu­als ly­ing on the ground, many of them dead or un­con­scious.

The re­port it­self in­cludes 30 data points, walk­ing through weath­er con­di­tions, med­ic­al evid­ence, and pho­to­graph­ic de­tails of the sur­face-to-sur­face rock­ets that car­ried the weapons. While the team was lim­ited “due to the se­cur­ity situ­ation” (in Ban’s words), its point is dir­ect. The 30th data point simply reads, “This res­ult leaves us with the deep­est con­cern.”

It does not as­sign blame, however. “On the basis of the evid­ence ob­tained dur­ing our in­vest­ig­a­tion of the Ghouta in­cid­ent,” the re­port reads, “the con­clu­sion is that, on 21 Au­gust 2013, chem­ic­al weapons have been used in the on­go­ing con­flict between the parties in the Syr­i­an Ar­ab Re­pub­lic, also against ci­vil­ians, in­clud­ing chil­dren, on a re­l­at­ively large scale.” The name “Bashar al-As­sad” does not ap­pear in the text of the doc­u­ment. “The in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity has a mor­al re­spons­ib­il­ity to hold ac­count­able those re­spons­ible,” Ban’s in­tro­duc­tion to the re­port reads, but the re­port doesn’t identi­fy those parties.

Ban’s point in ad­dress­ing the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil with the re­port was, in part, to call for the group’s unity. In oth­er words, he’d like for Rus­sia and China to not veto any ef­fort to in­tro­duce a solu­tion to the use of chem­ic­al weapons. He praises the tent­at­ive agree­ment reached by the United States and Rus­sia in Geneva, and it’s pos­sible that de­clin­ing to as­sign blame is part of that polit­ic­al ef­fort.

In present­ing the evid­ence to the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, Ban in­cluded in­form­a­tion meant to re­mind the world that the use of chem­ic­al weapons and the crime that con­sti­tutes is a small por­tion of the vi­ol­ence that has over­whelmed the coun­try. And fur­ther, that the world is im­plic­ated in that vi­ol­ence.

The UN Com­mis­sion of In­quiry has re­por­ted that Gov­ern­ment and pro-gov­ern­ment forces have com­mit­ted murder, en­forced dis­ap­pear­ances, ex­traju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tions, rape and tor­ture against ci­vil­ians. It has also re­por­ted that anti-gov­ern­ment armed groups have com­mit­ted murder, ex­e­cu­tions, tor­ture and host­age-tak­ing. There has been in­dis­crim­in­ate shelling of ci­vil­ian neigh­bour­hoods by all sides. Yet arms con­tin­ue to flow to the coun­try and the re­gion.

The team that col­lec­ted evid­ence in­side Syr­ia notes one de­tail that sug­gests why Rus­sia may still be hes­it­ant to ex­cor­i­ate its Syr­i­an al­lies — and its pos­sible role in the at­tacks. Pho­to­graphs of the rock­ets used to carry the gas in­clude Cyril­lic char­ac­ters, as seen be­low. That the Rus­si­ans sup­ply Syr­ia with weapons is not new in­form­a­tion, but it’s cer­tainly not the sort of thing that the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment is eager to have be dir­ectly im­plic­ated in the at­tack.

The United Na­tions re­port will likely not of­fer any new data for the in­ter­na­tion­al dip­lo­mats that have been ne­go­ti­at­ing the world’s re­sponse — largely out­side of the ae­gis of the body it­self. What the re­port may do, though, is of­fer in­sight in­to why that ne­go­ti­at­ing pro­cess is tricky as it has been.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from the At­lantic Wire. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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