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

    Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Attack, but Questions Remain

    Turkish sources say North Caucasus militants involved in bombing at Ataturk airport, but name of at least one alleged attacker raises doubts

    With Johnson Out, Can a New ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Save Britain?

    Contest to replace David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister started in earnest Thursday with top candidates outlining strategy to deal with Brexit fallout

    US Finds Progress Slow Against Human Trafficking in Africa

    Africa continues to be a major source and destination for human trafficking of all kinds -- from forced labor to sexual slavery, says State Department report

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Eitheri
    X
    Jim Malone
    June 29, 2016 6:16 PM
    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora