News / Middle East

Former Weapons Inspector Sees Disturbing Trend in Syria

A general view shows what forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad say is the site where Tuesday's chemical weapon attack occurred, March 23, 2013.
A general view shows what forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad say is the site where Tuesday's chemical weapon attack occurred, March 23, 2013.

U.N. General Assembly's Latest Syria Resolution


-Adopted by vote of 107 to 12, with 59 abstentions
-Calls for rapid progress on a political transition
-Expresses outrage at 'rapidly increasing death toll'
-Condemns Syrian government's use of heavy weapons
-Condemns the widespread and systematic violations of human rights in Syria
-Requests international community provide urgent funds to help countries hosting displaced Syrians
-Calls for report on situation of internally displaced persons in Syria
A United Nations group and some individual countries are collecting evidence trying to determine whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria.

Damascus is believed to have one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, including mustard gas, the more modern sarin and even VX - the most toxic of all chemical weapons.

Charles Duelfer, a former head of the Iraq Survey Group that investigated the extent of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, said Syria has about five or six key locations where the chemical weapons are stockpiled. But he notices a disturbing trend.

“As this war goes on, the control over these sites has dissipated and the evidence seems to be suggesting that some of the stockpiles have been moved around," he said. "That, of course, makes the potential for the dispersal of these agents into various hands more likely and more dangerous.”

Who has used chemical weapons in Syria?

Recently, there have been claims and counterclaims of chemical weapons use in Syria.

The Syrian government has accused opposition forces of using sarin. But several western countries, as well as Israel and Turkey, have charged that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used small amounts of chemical weapons against rebel forces.

That evidence, said Duelfer, essentially came from the examination of alleged victims of chemical weapons use.

“There have been a lot of people who have been brought to Turkey, that have been examined by doctors. Their symptoms parallel the symptoms of being exposed to a nerve agent," he said.

"To a lesser extent, I think there are samples, environmental samples - soil samples, agricultural samples - things like that,” said Duelfer. “However, one of the downsides, if it can be considered a downside of sarin, is that it tends to dissipate fairly quickly. And so over time, the confidence and the indisputable nature of the evidence can attenuate [weaken].”

The United States has taken a cautious approach, saying there must be a full investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria.

United Nations investigates

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has named Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom to head an international team to do just that. Sellstrom is an experienced investigator, having worked at the U.N. special commission on Iraq.

However Duelfer said Sellstrom is hindered in his investigation because the Syrian government has, up to now, denied him full access anywhere in the country.

“I still feel very strongly that the United Nations should have a team on the ground," said Duelfer. "There ought to be some party with their major interest being the truth of the matter - none of the other parties have necessarily a strict interest in the truth.”

Duelfer said Sellstrom finds himself in a difficult situation.

“Like so many of these things, it’s at the intersection of physical science and political science. The physical scientist can get chewed up and spit out in the world of political science, where truth is quite a relative term,” said Duelfer. “So the credibility of his report and ability to perform will be determined by the access that the politicians will be able to negotiate for him. And the secretary-general. Ban Ki-moon, is going to have to be pretty firm with the [Syrian] government. Otherwise, a very limited inspection may be worse than no inspection at all.”

U.N. mandate limited

In addition, Duelfer said Sellstrom’s U.N. mandate does not include finding out “who” has used chemical weapons.

“It is a much more difficult, and also politically much more important question, to find out what was the return address on this. And that can be extremely difficult,” said Duelfer. “But as a technical expert, his goal, as given to him by the secretary-general, is simply to find out if these chemical agents have in fact been used.”

Sellstrom is currently gathering evidence on the use of chemical weapons in Syria outside that country, while he and his team wait for a possible green light from the Syrian government giving them full access inside the country.

Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

You May Like

At Khmer Rouge Court, Long-Awaited Verdict Approaches

First phase of trial, which is coming to an end, has focused on forced exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975 - and now many are hopeful justice will be served More

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities More

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

Downing of Malaysian airliner, allegations of cross-border shelling move information war in war-torn country to a new level More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
July 31, 2014 8:13 PM
The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.

AppleAndroid