UN investigation of chemical weapons use in Ghouta

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Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013
AuthorUnited Nations Mission to Investigate Alleged Uses of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic
LanguageEnglish
SubjectGhouta chemical attack
PublisherUnited Nations
Publication date
16 September 2013

The Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 was a 2013 report produced by a team appointed by United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon to investigate alleged chemical weapon attacks during the Syrian civil war.[1] The report published on 16 September 2013 focused on the 21 August 2013 Ghouta chemical attack, which took place whilst the Mission was in Damascus to investigate prior alleged incidents, including the Khan al-Assal chemical attack in March 2013.

Background[edit]

The Four Seasons Hotel Damascus, where the UN team stayed

Two days before the attack, a UN team headed by Åke Sellström[1] arrived in Damascus with permission, from the Syrian government, to investigate earlier alleged chemical weapons use.[2][3] On the day of the attack, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed "the need to investigate [the Ghouta incident as] soon as possible," hoping for consent from the Syrian government.[2] The next day, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged government and opposition forces to allow investigation,[4] and Ban requested the government provide immediate access.[5][6] On 23 August, clashes between rebel and government forces continued in and around Ghouta, government shelling continued, and UN inspectors were denied access for a second day.[7][8] United States officials told The Wall Street Journal that the White House "became convinced" that the Syrian government was trying to hide the evidence of chemical weapons use by shelling the sites and delaying their inspection.[5] Ban called for a ceasefire to allow the inspectors to visit the attack sites.[9] On 25 August the government agreed to cease hostilities with the presence of UN inspectors,[10] and agreements between the UN, government and rebel factions were reached for five hours of cease-fire each day from 26 to 29 August.[11]

Investigation[edit]

Early in the morning of 26 August several mortars hit central Damascus, including one that fell near the Four Seasons hotel the UN inspectors were staying in.[12] Later in the day the UN team came under sniper fire en route to Moadamiyah in western Ghouta (in the south of Damascus), forcing them to return to their hotel and replace one of their vehicles before continuing their investigation four hours later.[13][14] The attack prompted Ban to declare he would register a complaint to the Syrian government and opposition authorities.[15][16] After returning to Moadamiyah the team visited clinics and makeshift field hospitals, collected samples and conducted interviews with witnesses, survivors and doctors.[13] The inspectors spoke with 20 victims of the attacks and took blood and hair samples, soil samples, and samples from domestic animals.[16] As a result of the delay caused by the sniper attack, the team's time in Moadamiyah was substantially shortened, with the scheduled expiry of the daily cease-fire leaving them around 90 minutes on the ground.[11][16][17]

On 28 and 29 August the UN team visited Zamalka and Ein Tarma in eastern Ghouta, in the east of Damascus, for a total time of five and a half hours.[1] On 30 August the team visited at a Syrian government military hospital in Mazzeh, and collected samples.[18][19]

Report[edit]

The UN investigation into the chemical attacks in Ghouta was published on 16 September. The report stated that "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 in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus."[1] The inspectors were able to identify several surface-to-surface rockets at the affected sites as 140mm BM-14 rockets originally manufactured in Russia and 330mm rockets probably manufactured in Syria.[20] U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the findings "beyond doubt and beyond the pale," and clear evidence of a war crime. "The results are overwhelming and indisputable ... A majority of the rockets or rocket fragments recovered were found to be carrying sarin."[21] The report, which was "careful not to blame either side," said that during the mission's work in the rebel controlled Zamalka and Ein Tarma neighborhoods, "individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated."[22] The areas were under rebel control, but the report did not elaborate on who the individuals were.[23] The UN investigators were accompanied by a rebel leader:

A leader of the local opposition forces [...] was identified and requested to take 'custody' of the Mission [...] to ensure the security and movement of the Mission, to facilitate the [sic] access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus on its main activities.[1]

An August Scientific American article had described difficulties that could arise when attempting to identify the manufacturer of sarin from soil or tissue samples.[24] UN lead investigator Sellström told the UN Security Council that the quality of the sarin was higher than that used by Iraq in the Iran–Iraq War and stating "In particular, 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," a conclusion omitted in the final report,[25] implying a purity higher than the Iraqi chemical weapons program's 45–60%.[26] (By comparison, Aum Shinrikyo used nearly pure sarin in the 1994 Matsumoto incident.[27]) According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of kilograms of sarin were used in the attack, which it said suggested government responsibility, as opposition forces were not known to possess significant amounts of sarin.[28] The UN report states, "Chemical weapons use in such meteorological conditions maximizes their potential impact as the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and penetrate into lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter."[29]

Responses[edit]

The Russian government dismissed the initial UN report after it was released, calling it "one-sided" and "distorted".[30] On 17 September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his government's belief that the opposition carried out the attacks as a "provocation".[31] The United Nations high representative for disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, stated that the inspection team would review Russia's objections.[32]

A Russian defence expert Ruslan Pukhov, said that the code found by the UN investigators on the M-14 munition showed it had been produced in 1967 by the Sibselmash plant in Novosibirsk for a BM-14-17 multiple rocket launcher. He said that these weapons had been taken out of service by Syria and replaced with BM-21s. The second projectile identified by weapons inspectors, he thought, looked to be 'home-made'.[33] An Iranian chemical weapons expert, Abbas Foroutan, said in October 2013 that the UN should publish more details about the investigation than were provided in the report, including victims' pulse rates and blood pressure and their response to the atropine treatment, the victims' levels of acetylcholinesterase (sarin is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor), and more technical details on the lab testing process.[34]

Further developments[edit]

The UN inspection team returned to the Damascus area to continue investigations into other alleged chemical attacks in late September 2013. A final report on Ghouta and six other alleged attacks (including three alleged to have occurred after the Ghouta attack) is expected to be released on early December 2013.[35]

In the months immediately following the August attacks, and the situation they precipitated, "Syria declared to the OPCW 30 production, filling and storage facilities, eight mobile filling units and three chemical weapons-related facilities.They contained approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, mostly in the form of raw precursors, 290 metric tons of loaded munitions and 1,230 unfilled munitions, OPCW documents showed."[36]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Sellström, Åke; Scott Cairns; Maurizio Barbeschi (16 September 2013). "Report of United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013" (PDF). United Nations. Archived from the original on 18 September 2013. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Syria: UN chief 'shocked' by new allegations of chemical weapons use". UN News Center. 21 August 2013. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  3. ^ "GB wants access to attack site in Syria". Birmingham Mail. 8 September 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
  4. ^ "Pillay says Syrian chemical weapons allegations "exceptionally grave," investigation essential". U.N. Human Rights News. 22 August 2013. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  5. ^ a b Entous, Adam; Dagher, Sam; Gorman, Siobhan (27 August 2013). "U.S., Allies Prepare to Act as Syria Intelligence Mounts". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
  6. ^ "Syria: Ban sending official request to allow UN probe of alleged chemical weapons use". UN News Centre. 22 August 2013. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  7. ^ Martin Chulov and Mona Mahmood. "Syrian victims of alleged gas attack smuggled to Jordan for blood tests". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  8. ^ "New clashes as UN seeks WMD probe". MSN News. 24 August 2013. Retrieved 12 September 2013. Syrian troops and opposition fighters have clashed during fierce battles in suburbs of the Syrian capital where the opposition claims a chemical weapons attack this week killed more than 130 people.
  9. ^ "Use of chemical weapons in Syria would be 'crime against humanity' – Ban". UN News Centre. 23 August 2013. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
  10. ^ Frederik Pleitgen; Josh Levs; Hamdi Alkhashali (26 August 2013). "U.S. official: Almost no doubt Assad regime used chemical weapons". CNN. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  11. ^ a b Ian Sample, The Guardian, 16 September 2013, UN inspectors in Syria: under fire, in record time, sarin is confirmed
  12. ^ Reuters, 26 August 2013, At least two mortar bombs hit Damascus near U.N. team's hotel
  13. ^ a b "Syria: UN chemical weapons team reaches inspection site after convoy hit with sniper fire". UN News Centre. 26 August 2013. Retrieved 8 September 2013.
  14. ^ BBC, 16 August 2013, Syria crisis: UN inspectors' convoy hit by sniper fire
  15. ^ "U.N. Inspectors Fired on in Syria, as Cameron Pushes Obama to Act". The Atlantic. 26 August 2013. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
  16. ^ a b c "U.N. inspectors told to leave reputed chemical weapons attack zone". United Press International. 26 August 2013. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
  17. ^ "Syria: US secretary of state John Kerry calls chemical attack 'cowardly crime' – as it happened". The Guardian. 26 August 2013. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
  18. ^ Zeina Karam and Kimberly Dozier, Associated Press, The Seattle Times, 8 September 2013, Doubts linger over Syria gas attack responsibility
  19. ^ The Daily Star, 31 August 2013, U.N. inspectors wrap up work in Damascus
  20. ^ Drum, Kevin (16 September 2013). "Yep, the Ghouta Gas Attacks Were Carried Out By the Assad Regime". Mother Jones. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  21. ^ Lynch, Colum; DeYoung, Karen (16 September 2013). "In Syria, U.N. inspectors find 'clear and convincing' evidence of chemical attack". Washington Post. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
  22. ^ Lederer, Edith M. (16 September 2013). "UN finds 'convincing evidence' of chemical weapons used in Syria but assesses no blame". StarTribune. AP. Retrieved 11 March 2016.
  23. ^ "UN confirms chemical weapons used in Syria". Denver Post. 16 September 2013.
  24. ^ "Who Made the Sarin Used in Syria?". Scientific American. 22 August 2013.
  25. ^ Reuters, 16 September 2013, U.N. confirms sarin used in Syria attack; U.S., UK, France blame Assad
  26. ^ United Nations UNMOVIC, S/2006/701 – Overview of the chemical munitions recently found in Iraq
  27. ^ Okumura, S; Okumura, T; Ishimatsu, S; Miura, K; Maekawa, H; Naito, T (2005). "Clinical review: Tokyo - protecting the health care worker during a chemical mass casualty event: an important issue of continuing relevance". Crit Care. 9: 397–400. doi:10.1186/cc3062. PMC 1269427. PMID 16137390.
  28. ^ The Guardian, 16 September 2013
  29. ^ https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-un-idUSBRE98F0ED20130916
  30. ^ "Russia Calls U.N. Chemical Report on Syria Biased". The New York Times. 18 September 2013. Retrieved 18 September 2013.
  31. ^ Lichfield, John (17 September 2013). "Syria crisis: Regime has given Russia 'proof' of rebel chemical weapon use". The Independent. London.
  32. ^ Gladstone, Rick; Sengupta, Somini (2 October 2013). "Missed Opportunity in Syria Haunts U.N. Official". New York Times. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  33. ^ Daily Mail, 18 September 2013, Moscow admits part of rockets fired in Syria gas attack WERE Russian... but says 'antique' devices from the 1960s prove they were fired by the rebels
  34. ^ Foroutan's work was reviewed in Neurology in 2004 by a US Army chemical weapons expert, and described as "the only firsthand clinical descriptions of battlefield nerve agent casualties in the world literature". – Sharmine Narwani and Radwan Mortada, mideastshuffle.com, 1 October 2010, CW Expert Opinion on the UN Report on Syria
  35. ^ "Spokesperson's Noon Briefing". United Nations. 31 October 2013. Retrieved 7 November 2013.
  36. ^ Deutsch, Anthony (5 November 2013). "Exclusive: Syria chemical weapons mission funded only through this month". Reuters.