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

UN Watchdog Urges Israel to Probe Possible Gaza War Crimes

More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in a 51-day war in Gaza, along with 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel More

New Kenyan 'Thin SIMs' Poised to Transform African Mobile Money

Equity's new technology is approved in African nation for one-year trial, though industry leader Safaricom says thin SIMs could lead to data theft and fraud More

Solar's Future Looks Brighter

New technology and dropping prices are contributing to a surge in solar power More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid