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

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said To Be Improving

Experimental drugs have been tried on six people: three Westerners and now, three African pyhysicians More

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities residents rebuild their lives, but many say everyone is being treated with suspicion More

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

Girls learn to object; FGM practitioners face penalties from jail sentences to stiff fines More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid