Were chemical weapons used in Syria? UN team poised for probe.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called for a chemical-weapons investigation of an alleged March 19 attack, but he’s apparently gotten cold feet. Here's why.

Michael Kooren/Reuters
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at a news conference at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague Monday. Mr. Ban said a team to investigate claims of chemical weapons use in Syria was ready to deploy within 24 hours and urged the Syrian government to give the go-ahead so work could begin.

Were chemical weapons used in the Syria war?

A team of United Nations chemical-weapons investigators is waiting in Cyprus for a green light from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – who appears to have suddenly gotten cold feet about an international investigation that he called for in the first place.

The reason seems to have to do with the broader geopolitics of a war that each day threatens to become more of a regional conflict.

Mr. Assad wants the UN investigators to limit themselves to one reported attack March 19 in a village outside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a northern stronghold of the rebellion. But the opposition, backed by Britain and France, insists that the team look into all alleged incidents of chemical-weapons use in Syria, including two attacks elsewhere on March 19 and another case from last December in Homs.

Enter Russia, Assad’s principal ally on the international stage, which is warning the Syrian regime to beware of Western intentions in seeking a broader investigation – noting that it was a broad UN investigation of alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that served as the pretext for the US intervention that topped the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Against this backdrop, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging Assad to admit “without delay” a team of 15 investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and experts from the World Health Organization. Speaking at the OPCW in The Hague Monday, Mr. Ban said the team must be allowed to investigate all reports of chemical-weapons use “without conditions and without exceptions.”

The flap over the chemical-weapons investigation occurs while Secretary of State John Kerry is in the region – and as the Assad regime confronts increased instability in and around Damascus, as suggested by a large car bombing in central Damascus Monday that left at least 15 people dead.

Secretary Kerry is in Israel and the West Bank Monday and Tuesday to encourage steps by both Israelis and Palestinians that could pave the way to a return to peace talks.

But the Syria war, which day by day becomes an increasingly worrisome problem for Israel as well as for Syria’s other neighbors, is not exactly an encouraging environment in which Israelis and Palestinians might consider major strides toward peace. The war in Syria had its deadliest month in March, with more than 7,000 killed.

Syria is believed to maintain one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. President Obama has warned the Assad regime that any use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” for the United States – a warning taken into account not just by Assad but no doubt by Moscow as well.

The Assad regime first called for an international investigation of the alleged March 19 attack, but rebel fighters quickly blamed the attack on government forces and joined the call for an international probe.

Ban said the team waiting in Cyprus for permission to enter Syria could be on the ground and working within 24 hours. And he noted that in investigations of chemical-weapons attacks, time is of the essence. “The longer we wait, the harder this essential mission will be,” he said.

Evidence of chemical weapons dissipates over time, according to experts, making findings about what agents were used increasingly difficult.

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