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

    Russian-Backed Offensive in Syria Pushes War to Tipping Point

    As threat to Aleppo and rebel forces grows, US plan to negotiate becomes less and less appealing for Syrian government, says one military analyst

    IS Runs Timber Smuggling Business in Afghanistan, Officials Say

    Government turning blind eye to smuggling, according to tribal leaders; Afghanistan's forest cover dropped by 50 percent in three decades, experts say

    Video White House Seeks $1.8 Billion to Combat Zika

    Obama administration says funding would 'support essential strategies to combat the virus' such as rapidly expanding mosquito control programs, accelerating vaccine research

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenyai
    X
    February 08, 2016 4:30 PM
    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video Sanders, Clinton Battle for Young Democratic Vote

    Despite a narrow loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders secured more than 80 percent of the vote among those between the ages of 18 and 29. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Democrats in New Hampshire about who they are leaning towards and why in this week's primary.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.