Syria gas attacks: the clear and concise evidence from UN chemical weapons inspectors

Syria gas attacks: the clear and concise evidence from UN chemical weapons inspectors

UN concludes sarin gas used in conditions ‘designed to cause maximum suffering’

David Usborne
Kim Sengupta

Monday 16 September 2013

A grim United Nations inspectors’ report offered “clear and
convincing evidence” on Monday that poison gas was used “on a relatively
large scale” in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on 21 August when
weather conditions – cold, falling air – ensured it would cause maximum
death and suffering, seeping silently into basements and underground

While the document, submitted formally to the Security Council by the
Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, does not explicitly assign
responsibility for the attacks, it clearly suggests that in at least two
instances rockets designed to release sarin gas were fired from the
direction of territory held by government forces. One of those appeared
to have come from the direction of a large Syrian army base.The
report “confirms the position of those of us who have said that the
regime is guilty”, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said
yesterday. “When you look at the facts, the quantities of toxic gas
used, the complexity of the mixing, the nature and trajectory of the
vectors, all that leaves absolutely no doubt as to the origin of the
attack.”The US envoy to the UN, Samantha Power, noted that the
regime has sarin gas and there is “no evidence” the rebels do. “The UN
report confirms unmistakably that chemical weapons were used,” she told
reporters in New York. “The mandate of the chemical weapons team was, as
you well know, not to investigate culpability. But the technical detail
of the UN report makes clear that only the regime could have carried
out this large-scale chemical weapons attack.”“This was no cottage-industry use of chemical weapons,” said Sir Mark Lyall, the British ambassador.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks to the media after
briefing the Security Council on the UN chemical weapons report

First reports from residents and non-governmental groups of
chemical weapons use set in train the crisis that saw the United States
threaten military action and the negotiation at the weekend of the
Russian-US pact to confiscate and destroy the weapons.But
yesterday was the first time in a quarter of a century that the United
Nations formally declared the deliberate deployment of prohibited
chemical weapons against soldiers or civilians.President Bashar
al-Assad, who agreed last week to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention,
has applied to the US for a visa to attend next week’s UN General
Assembly in New York. The State Department declined to comment.The
UN team, which came under sniper fire the first time it attempted to
visit the affected areas five days after the attacks, based their
findings on an array of evidence, including soil samples, examination of
munitions fragments, analysis of blood, urine and hair from victims as
well as extensive interviews with more than fifty exposed survivors
including doctors and nurses who rushed to the scene.“On the
basis of the evidence obtained during the investigation of the Ghouta
incident, the conclusion is that 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,”
said the report, compiled by chief UN investigator who lead the team,
Ake Sellstrom of Sweden.It also confirmed that that assault
involved rockets fitted to release quantities of Sarin gas. Of 34 blood
samples analysed, 91 per cent were positive for sarin exposure. “The
environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide
clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing
the nerve agent sarin were used,” the report said.The inspectors
found parts of rockets and damage to buildings in the Moadimayah
district of West Ghouta and the Zamalka and Ein Tarma neighbourhoods of
East Ghouta, suburban areas that were largely under rebel control. By
citing the weather conditions, the report implies careful forward
planning; temperatures were falling between 2am and 5am. “This means
that air is not moving from the ground upwards, but rather the opposite.
Chemical weapons use in such meteorological conditions maximises their
potential impact as the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and
penetrate lower levels of buildings where many people were seeking
shelter.”Some of the witness testimony was taken from health care
workers and first responders, many of whom lived in nearby
neighbourhoods and rushed to help the victims. Nine nurses and seven
doctors were interviewed and several of them suffered symptoms of having
been exposed to sarin, “with one describing the onset of blurred
vision, generalised weakness, shaking, a sensation of impending doom,
followed by fainting.”When the first responders reached the areas
hit by the rockets they saw “a large number of individuals lying on the
ground, many of whom were deceased or unconscious.The report
acknowledges that determining trajectories was only possible in two of
the five rocket impact areas. “Impact site number one (Moadamiyah) and
impact site number four (Ein Tarma) provide sufficient evidence to
determine, with a sufficient degree of accuracy, the likely trajectory
of the projectiles,” it said in an annex, which also offered pictures of
the rockets as well as identifying markets in Russian lettering.The
regime and its allies, notably Russia, have claimed the atrocity was
carried out by the rebels to ‘frame’ President Assad. In that narrative
one could say the opposition had deliberately used Russian made rockets.
It would, however, be hard to explain how they managed to carry out the
operation from several points inside regime territory. Mr Sellstrom
moreover told envoys the sarin gas was of high purity and concentration.Included
in the report was confirmation that because so many of the victims were
sleeping when the rockets came in, it often happened that single
families lost multiple members. In Zamalka, two brothers who were
interviewed said that of the 40 members of their family who were all
living in the same building only they had survived.Under fire:

Under fire: How Ghouta was targeted* By studying the site of
impact, the team determined that the rockets were fired from several
locations – both of which were in territory held by government forces. *
The type of munitions used in the attack – the M14 artillery rocket –
has not been seen in the possession of the rebels at any point during
the conflict.* The rockets were fired from a number of locations suggests a coordinated attack.

* Exploded surface-to-surface rockets capable of carrying a chemical payload were found to contain sarin.

* The ground surrounding the rocket impact sites was found to be contaminated with sarin.

* Blood and urine samples from survivors tested positive for sarin.