News / Middle East

Diplomatic Hurdles for Syria UN Chemical-Arms Inspection

Animal carcasses are shown in wake of what residents describe as a chemical weapons attack in Khan al-Assal area, near Aleppo, Syria, March 23, 2013.
Animal carcasses are shown in wake of what residents describe as a chemical weapons attack in Khan al-Assal area, near Aleppo, Syria, March 23, 2013.
Reuters
A team of U.N.-led experts is on standby in Cyprus waiting for the go-ahead to investigate allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, but the mission has been held up by diplomatic wrangling over their powers and how to keep them safe.
 
The team of at least 15 investigators includes analytical chemists, able to collect and test suspected samples, and World Health Organization experts on the medical effects of exposure to toxins, who could examine alleged victims.
 
For now, the deployment is at an impasse.
 
Syria has asked for the team to investigate what it says was a poison attack by rebels in the northern city of Aleppo last month. But Damascus has rejected demands by the opposition that the inspectors also be sent to investigate other locations where rebels say government forces used chemical munitions.
 
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the mission can only be successful if it considers allegations from all sides. U.N. Security Council members have split on the issue, with Russia backing the Syrian government position and the United States, Britain and France backing the opposition.
 
The mission will test the diplomatic skills of its leader, Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, who helped dismantle Iraq's biological and chemical weapons program in the 1990s.
 
"He's competent and honest, which is very important," Sellstrom's former boss in Iraq, Rolf Ekeus, told Reuters. "He's also not a politician or a diplomat, but a scientist. He has experience in Iraq in tough times, so he knows how to face uphill battles."

But deploying inspectors to the frontlines of a sectarian war would be unprecedented, and, says one veteran arms inspector, risky to the point of being foolhardy.
 
"Any Western person volunteering for such a team should see it as a suicide mission. The ground is just too unstable," Robert Kelley, an American who headed an International Atomic Energy Agency inspection team in Iraq, told Reuters.
 
"I would certainly not volunteer for this mission on the basis of such weak hearsay," he said. "There is little chance of technical success and they can be used by propagandists of any side for any reason."
 
Red line

Sellstrom's team is not mandated to determine who is to blame for possible attacks, only to establish scientifically whether chemical weapons have been used in the two-year-old conflict that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives.
 
The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is providing scientists and equipment. The team will consist of experts mostly from Nordic countries, Latin America or Asia. None will be from a permanent U.N. Security Council member, to avoid an appearance of bias.
 
Western countries say they believe Syria has chemical weapons stockpiles, and their use would be a "red line" that could justify foreign military intervention. Syria has not publicly confirmed whether it possess chemical arms but says it would never use them in an internal conflict.
 
Damascus also says it is worried the inspectors could end up playing the role they played in neighboring Iraq, where their suspicions that then-leader Saddam Hussein was hiding banned weapons were used by Washington to justify the 2003 invasion.
 
If they are deployed, inspectors armed with hand-held chemical agent detectors would head to alleged sites of use. The area would be sealed off like a crime scene while video and photographic evidence was recorded.
 
Soil, air, water and possibly blood and urine samples from alleged victims or dead animals could be examined at a basic mobile laboratory before being split, sealed and sent to the OPCW's headquarters in The Hague and two other labs.
 
Syria has said it wants to be provided with its own samples so that it can check the inspectors' work.
 
Officials in the town of Douma near Damascus — one of the areas that the government wants to keep off limits — said they have preserved the bodies of six alleged victims of chemical munitions in a morgue.
 
A letter to Sellstrom, sent on behalf of local town leaders by a leading opposition figure, said the deaths occurred in the villages of Adra and Otaiba. A further 32 people have symptoms of illness and have offered to be examined, it said.
 
Syria is one of eight countries, including its neighbors Israel and Egypt, that have not joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which means it has no obligation to cooperate with OPCW experts.
 
"With the government resisting access, it is a tricky situation for Sellstrom. I would seek a broader mandate from the U.N. But first they should start with one investigation and then go from there. If not, they will not go at all," said Ekeus.
 
Hans Blix, Ekeus's successor as head of the inspection team that operated in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, said Syria poses tougher challenges than Iraq, because of the lack of international leverage over both the government and the rebels — to say nothing of the added risk of operating in a war zone.
 
He said the mission should not launch without permission to look at allegations from both sides.
 
"I don't think the U.N. could really content itself with taking a look at [only] that which the government alleges was made by the rebels. They have to be even-handed," he said.
 
While politics are now the main barrier, logistics and security are also important issues that need to be worked out. Among unresolved problems: how to keep the inspectors safe when crossing between government and insurgent-held areas.
 
Ekeus said that would make it harder to do the job than in pre-invasion Iraq.
 
"I could demand access anywhere, anytime with the U.N. mandate. But Sellstrom will have to say 'I want to go there' and they can simply say 'we can't give you security,' and it's over."

You May Like

US Investors Eye IPO for China's Alibaba

E-commerce giant handled 80 percent of China's online business last year, logging more Internet transactions than US-based Amazon.com and eBay combined More

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

As cease-fire begins, Palestinians celebrate in streets; Israelis remain wary More

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

In treatment of a 12-year-old boy Chinese doctors used a 3-D printer and special software to create an exact replica of vertebra More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implanti
X
August 27, 2014 4:53 PM
A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. VOA News reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Northern California Quake: No Way to Know When Next One Will Hit

A magnitude 6.0 earthquake rocked northern California’s Napa Valley on Sunday. Roads twisted and water mains burst. It was the wine country’s most severe quake in 15 years, and while hospitals treated many people, no one was killed. Arash Arabasadi has more from Washington on what the future may hold for those residents living on a fault line.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ukraine: Captured Troops Proof of Russian Role in Separatist Fight

Ukrainian officials say they have captured Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory -- the latest accusation of Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the Ukrainian side of the battle, where soldiers are convinced of Russia's role.
Video

Video Rubber May Soon Come From Dandelions

Synthetic rubber has been around for more than a century, but quality tires for cars, trucks and aircraft still need up to 40 percent or more natural rubber content. As the source of natural rubber, the rubber tree, is prone to disease and can be affected by bad weather. So scientists are looking for replacements. And as VOA’s George Putic reports, they may have found one in a ubiquitous weed.
Video

Video Jewish Life in Argentina Reflected in Yiddish Tango

Jewish people from across Europe and Russia have been immigrating to Argentina for hundreds of years. They brought with them dance music that were eventually mixed with Argentine tango. The result is Yiddish tango -- a fusion of melodies and cultural experiences that is still evolving today. Elizabeth Lee reports from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where one band is bringing Yiddish tango to an American audience.

AppleAndroid