UNITED NATIONS— The Syrian government has requested that the U.N. Secretary-General establish an independent inquiry to investigate its claims that armed opposition groups used chemical weapons in an attack in the province of Aleppo on Tuesday.
The letter dated Wednesday from Syria's foreign minister to U.N. Chief Ban Ki-moon alleges that an “armed terrorist group” - the term the government uses for the opposition - launched a missile into a populated area of Aleppo which exploded spreading a “dense smoke” and causing “scores” of deaths and injuries to civilians and soldiers.
The letter asks Ban to establish a “specialized, impartial, independent mission” to investigate this incident in which it says that chemical weapons were used.
At the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, British Deputy Ambassador Philip Parham told journalists that he and the French ambassador raised reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria with the 15-nation council.
While the government's letter refers to only one incident, the British envoy pointed out that the opposition National Coalition said there were two incidents on Tuesday- the one in Aleppo and another in Damascus -- both of which the opposition claims were carried out by the government.
“Clearly if chemical weapons have been used, this will be abhorrent, it will be very grave, it will warrant a serious response by the international community and it will force us to revisit the approach we have been taking so far. But the facts are not clear at the moment and this is the whole point. The point that we raised in the Security Council -- the facts need to be clarified,” Parham said.
The British and French envoys said they would send a letter to Ban Ki-moon signed by other council members who are of like mind asking the secretary-general to establish a “swift, thorough and impartial investigation” of any reports of chemical weapons use in Syria.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States will thoroughly investigate reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, but that his administration is "deeply skeptical" of claims that rebel forces were behind such an attack.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin expressed support for the Syrian government's requested investigation, but he was skeptical about a second attack, referring to “rumors” and suggesting his Western colleagues are trying to delay an investigation by sending up “propaganda balloons” about another chemical attack and urging investigation of other issues, such as humanitarian access.
When questioned about a broader investigation into chemical weapons in Syria, Ambassador Churkin said he raised the “specter of Iraq” saying similar investigations a decade ago in that country led to “certain developments”. Those developments were a U.S.-led invasion of the country on allegations of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that ultimately turned out to be false.
The Russian envoy, whose government is close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, also expressed concern that the opposition may be motivated to fabricate stories of chemical weapons use.
“We have expressed very clearly and openly our concern that they [ie, chemical weapons] may be taken hold of by the opposition or the opposition and various opposition groups may manufacture something in order to demonstrate a chemical weapons attack because some of our international colleagues have been saying very loudly that that would be a 'game changer'. And of course, one would not be surprised if some members of armed opposition groups would want the game to change,” Churkin said.
Syria has never confirmed that it possesses chemical weapons, but has said if it does have them it would only use them if attacked by a foreign aggressor and not against its own people.