UN finds evidence of 'toxic chemicals' and a worsening war in Syria

A new UN report says some kind of chemical has probably been used on Syria's battlefield, but stopped short of saying what chemical or by whom.

Ruben Sprich/Reuters
Paulo Pinheiro, chairperson of the UN commission of inquiry, speaks next to commission member Carla del Ponte (l.) during a news conference on the presentation of their latest report at the UN in Geneva Monday. United Nations human rights investigators said on Tuesday they had 'reasonable grounds' to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria.

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Just a week after the EU decided to let its arms embargo on Syria lapse and as the international community seeks a political solution to the civil war, a United Nation’s human rights investigation warned of rising violence and found “reasonable grounds” to believe some toxic chemicals have been used.

"The conflict in Syria has reached new levels of brutality," the investigating commission said. "War crimes, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations continue apace."

The 29-page report, presented in Geneva to the UN Human Rights Council, says that both the rebels and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are exercising brutality. Child fighters have been involved in combat, with nearly 90 killed, and extrajudicial murders and kidnappings have been on the rise, the report says.

However, “war crimes by rebels, including murder, torture and hostage-taking, did not reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia,” Reuters reports.

“There is a strong element of retribution in the government’s approach, with civilians paying a price for ‘allowing’ armed groups to operate within their towns,” the report said.

Chemical weapons

The investigation documented abuses between Jan. 15 and May 15, 2013, with at least 17 massacres taking place during the 4-month review period. It also looked into four reported cases of chemical weapons use in March and April.

"There are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used. It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator," said Paulo Pinheiro, who chairs the UN commission of inquiry.

President Obama has said for months that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be considered a “red line,” however the administration has stated there isn’t yet enough conclusive evidence, reports The Christian Science Monitor. In April, Obama's legislative affairs director Miguel E. Rodriquez wrote to Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin: "Intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient – only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making, and strengthen our leadership of the international community."

It is unclear whether this most recent report will provide the levels of evidence required by the US administration, however, attention is still largely focused on co-organizing a peace summit with Russia in the coming weeks. A State Department spokesperson said on Thursday the US planned to move ahead with the conference, despite an interview given by President Assad on Lebanese TV where he announced the Russian delivery of sophisticated defense weapons.

'Future worst cases?'

Today’s report is the fifth released by the panel on the conflict. The investigating team conducted 430 in person interviews with refugees in countries neighboring Syria and with those still inside the country via Skype, reports Reuters. The findings were inconclusive as to which side of the conflict was responsible for any chemical attacks, and the need for access inside the country in order to collect samples was highlighted.

The Guardian reports that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon created a team to investigate chemical attacks after the Syrian government reported an attack by rebels on March 19. However, the investigation was expected to look no further than that single incident in northern Aleppo. Syria has refused access to the team, which has insisted on a broader examination of chemical weapon use.

In an opinion pierce for the Washington Post today, Michael Gerson wrote that the “worst case scenario” for Syria seems to be taking a nosedive. “Future worst cases — involving loose chemical weapons, regional sectarian war, the fall of friendly governments — don’t require much imagination,” Mr. Gerson writes. “At some point…Syria’s downward spiral demands grammatical innovation. Most worst? Worstest?”

Syria has become a global proxy war, in which every other participant is more invested than the United States. Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia — along with Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and now the Muslim Brotherhood — aid the forces that seem to serve their interests. U.S. support for the moderate opposition that began the Syrian revolution, in contrast, has been hesitant, late and restricted….

Secretary of State John Kerry’s Russian outreach has only complicated the situation. A return to the Geneva process is marginalizing the people we most want to help. After receiving inadequate support from the United States and taking a beating on the ground, the [Free Syrian Army] is being told to shape up and negotiate with Assad and his Russian allies, who are actively providing the means to destroy the rebellion. If the FSA acquiesced, it would be discredited. More Syrians — who generally have no interest in the return of the caliphate — would choose to fight under the jihadist black flag. It is a predicable calculation: better a radical than a lackey.

But the opposite might also be true. If the responsible Syrian opposition was more obviously effective — adequately armed and trained, in control of territory and the air above it, providing public services, building legitimacy — more Syrians might end their marriages of convenience with the jihadists. Syrian nationalism could find more responsible expression.

The problem is that, with the FSA’s prospects and morale in decline, an outside intervention now would need to be decisive to make a difference.

“Increased arm transfers hurt the prospect of a political settlement to the conflict, fuel the multiplication of armed actors at the national and regional levels and have devastating consequences for civilians,” the UN report said.

The conflict has claimed an estimated 80,000 lives since it began. Mr. Pinheiro, commission chair, said, “It’s an illusion that more weapons will tip the balance between the two parties. No one is winning.”

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