Britain and France have informed the United Nations there is credible evidence that Syria has fired chemical weapons more than once in the past several months, according to senior U.N.-based diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts.
In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the two European powers have detailed at least three instances of suspected chemical weapons used in or around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, since last December. The claims are based on a range of corroborating evidence -- including nerve agent soil samples, witness interviews, opposition sources, and accounts by medical experts who observed victims' symptoms, according to diplomats..
If proven, the allegations would provide the first hard evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. And it would increase political pressure on the Obama administration to take steps to halt their future use.
President Barack Obama has warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for the United States. Following the Aleppo incident, Obama said the United States would "investigate thoroughly exactly what happened" and that he had instructed "teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether this red line was crossed."
But diplomats say the United States has responded cautiously. The United States, said one Security Council diplomat, has been "less activist on this" than Britain and France. "You can draw your conclusions as to why that might be."
The Europeans' presentation of their findings to the United Nations are in part aimed at countering claims by the Syrian government that armed opposition elements fired chemical weapons at Syrian forces on March 19, killing 26 people, including Syrian troops. European diplomats acknowledge that Syrian troops may have been exposed to a chemical agent during the March 19 attack, but they claim that they were hit in a "friendly fire" attack by a Syrian shell that missed an opposition target.
In making its case, Britain informed Ban in a confidential letter that it had obtained evidence confirming that Syrian forces had indeed been hit by a projectile containing the chemical agent in the town of Khan al-Asal.
The Syrian army, Britain claims, fired a chemical shell at a public facility suspected of harboring opposition elements, but that it veered off target, striking a Syrian government installation. Britain also informed the U.N. it has obtained a soil sample identifying the agent as "similar to sarin," according to a senior Western diplomat familiar with the case. But it remained unclear where the sample was located. The London Times, reported earlier this week that British intelligence had obtained a soil sample "of some kind of chemical weapon" near Damascus, though it cited a source saying. "It can't be definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent."
On March 20, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, invited the U.N. to send an "impartial" technical team to Syria confirm the opposition's use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo. Russia strongly endorsed the Syrian request.
The U.N. chief quickly agreed to establish a fact-finding team and appointed a Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, to lead it. But the effort to deploy the team in Syria has bogged down over a big power dispute over the scope of the investigation.
Britain and France opposed the Syrian request for a narrow U.N. investigation into the single incident -- out of concern that the U.N. would be unable to prove who fired the chemical weapon, and that the physical evidence could be used to support the Syrian government's claim that it was a victim. Instead, they convinced Ban to expand the inquiry to include the examination of opposition claims that Syrian authorities used chemical weapons in Homs and Damascus. "There was a strong effort to foil the Syrian government narrative and urge the secretary general not to fall into that trap."
Ban agreed on March 21 to expand the investigation.
On Friday, Angela Kane, the U.N. undersecretary for disarmament affairs, informed Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, that the U.N. team would focus initially on the incident at Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo. But she added that Ban "has concluded the mission should also investigate the facts related to the reported incident on 23 December 2012 in Homs," according to an confidential communication.
The U.S. State Department carried out an internal investigation into the incident earlier this year, according to a report by Foreign Policy's blog, The Cable. Claims by opposition elements that Syria used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack in Ataybah town, near Damascus, are less persuasive than the other two cases.
Syria balked at the request to expand the investigation, and the two sides remained at an impasse. Despite repeated pleas from Ban, Damascus has not let the U.N. inspectors into the country.
Russia has vigorously backed the Syrian government's request, denouncing the European call for an expanded investigation as a ploy to delay the Aleppo inquiry.
On Monday, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, speaking during a closed door Security Council luncheon with the U.N. secretary general, scolded Ban for failing to accept the Syrian government's terms. "He gave him an earful," said one senior council diplomat who attended the luncheon.
The U.N. has written to Britain, France, and Syria, requesting further information and cooperation. Officials said the investigation team, currently in Cyprus, would likely travel to Britain to examine its soil sample, and interview Syrian refugees that may have been exposed to chemical agents.
In a press conference Wednesday, Ban told reporters that he would proceed with an investigation into the incidents outside the country. "I have been urging the Syrian government to show flexibility in accepting the proposed modalities," he said. "While awaiting consent from the Syrian government, the mission will proceed with its fact-finding activities. To this end, specific information has been requested from the governments concerned."
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