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.
TEXT SIZE - +

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

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid