UN Syria chemical weapons report: What will it say?

The UN report on chemical weapons in Syria is expected to confirm an attack occurred – not identify who carried it out.

Bassam Khabieh/REUTERS/File
United Nations chemical weapons experts prepare before collecting samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Zamalka, Syria, in this August 29, 2013 file photo.

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The United Nations team that traveled to Syria to investigate accusations of use of chemical weapons will release its highly anticipated report today, potentially removing one of the biggest challenges to ongoing negotiations: the lack of evidence from a source that has not chosen a side in Syria's war.

The US and Russia – the de facto representatives of the international community's opposing positions – agree that a large-scale chemical weapons attack occurred in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21. But the US firmly believes that the Syrian regime was behind the attack, while Russia has accused the rebels of carrying it out in order to raise support for foreign intervention. President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly denied any use of chemical weapons.

But ABC News reports that the UN report will likely not point fingers at either side, leaving an essential question unanswered.

The UN inspectors' primary task was simply to confirm the attack occurred and if so, identify the agent used – assigning a perpetrator was not a main goal. However, the paper will reportedly suggest that only Assad's military has the capability to carry out such a wide-scale strike.

Regardless of whether the report identifies who is to blame, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Friday it will be "an overwhelming report" and that the Assad government has "committed many crimes against humanity."

"Therefore, I'm sure that there will be surely the process of accountability when everything is over," he said.

Foreign Policy reported on Sept. 13 that, according to an unnamed Western official, the UN team has a "wealth" of evidence that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons

The inspection team… will not directly accuse the Syrian regime of gassing its own people, according to three UN-based diplomats familiar with the investigation. But it will provide a strong circumstantial case – based on an examination of spent rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples – that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability.

"I know they have gotten very rich samples – biomedical and environmental – and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses," said the Western official. "It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got."

However, Western diplomats told Foreign Policy that while the report would "strengthen the case" against the regime, it would "not fundamentally alter the course of diplomatic efforts to contain chemical weapons in Syria."

Such diplomatic efforts accomplished a substantial achievement yesterday, with US and Russian officials reaching an agreement on Syria's chemical weapons program, calling for an inventory of the country's stockpile within a week and a complete elimination of the program by mid-2014. A follow-up UN resolution will lay out a framework for how Syria can first secure, then destroy its chemical weapons.

The Associated Press reports that the onus to keep the deal viable is on Assad. The US and France have both been emphatic that a military strike against Syria remains on the table if he drags his feet. “If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act,” said US President Obama yesterday, and French President François Hollande said, “The military option must remain; otherwise there will be no pressure."

While the agreement was hailed as an achievement, the reception was muted. An unpopular, seemingly imminent military strike on Syria has been averted, but the deal offered a "lifeline" to Assad, Reuters reports. And although the agreement will strip the regime of its chemical weapons arsenal, which it has relied on in order to deter attacks by domestic and regional enemies, it implicitly designates him as the primary negotiator for Syria still, despite losing control of much of the country and waging a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

… [I]n the short term at least the Russian initiative, which Syria announced it would accept on the eve of the president's 48th birthday last week, was a gift for Assad.

It lifts the immediate threat of U.S. military action and secures his government an indispensable role over the coming months in assisting the destruction of chemical stockpiles.

"You're looking at a re-legitimized regime here. Not just Assad but the whole entourage," said Ayham Kamel, an analyst at the Eurasia consultancy group. "For the foreseeable future the government of Syria has become the key interlocutor for the international community".

The Washington Post reports that while international attention was focused on negotiations, the intensity of the fighting shot up. The weekly death toll, which had plummeted "into the low dozens" in the days after Obama's statement that he was prepared to strike, jumped back up into the hundreds.

Warplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn’t seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus, rebels launched an offensive in the south, and a historic Christian town changed hands at least four times.

At the close of a week hailed in Moscow and Washington as a triumph of diplomacy over war, more than 1,000 people died in the fighting in Syria… .

The poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus last month accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the deaths in the 21 / 2-year-old Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, both sides are stepping up conventional attacks in the absence of any sign of a broader settlement. 

The possibility of a US strike "may have held in check some of the more violent impulses of a well-armed government," The Washington Post reports. With that off the table – for now – the regime is newly emboldened.

The fierce debate over chemical weapons has also eclipsed the brutality of the regime's initial response to an unarmed uprising, as well as the deep internal divisions and complex alliances that have made this such a bloody war, The Washington Post notes. It also fails to address any endgame questions: whether Assad should remain in power and how to end conventional fighting. 

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