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U.N. chemical weapons chief: time is running out to get to the scene of the crime in Syria

The Swedish scientist tapped by the United Nations to lead the hunt for evidence of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, has informed top diplomats that he is in a race against time, and that the key signatures of a chemical attack -- traces of chemical agents captured in soil and human blood, hair, and tissues -- will be increasingly difficult to obtain as each day passes.

The passage of time is only one the many challenges confronting Ake Sellstrom, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq. Sellstrom has not been allowed into Syria to collect first-hand evidence to test conflicting claims by Syria's main combatants and outside governments that chemical weapons have been used - both by the Syrian government and rebels. The inspectors -- who are operating out of offices in the Hague and staging in Cyprus -- are confronting a dizzying area of claims and counterclaims blaming both government forces and insurgents with introducing chemical agents into a civil war that has already resulted in the death of well over 70,000 people.

Over the weekend, former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who is serving on a U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, added to the confusion, telling an Italian-Swiss news agency that she had "strong, concrete suspicions" -- though not "incontrovertible proof" -- that insurgents had used the chemical agent, sarin. Her account -- which is based on interviews from Syrian refugees and reinforces the claims of Bashar al-Assad's government -- contradicts assertions by British and French intelligence agencies that they had credible evidence that it was Syrian forces that used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. However, the commission of inquiry subsequently put out a statement saying that it "wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons by any parties to the conflict."

Britain and France, meanwhile, have dialed back their claims in recent days, indicating that, like the U.S. assessment, they lack absolute proof. "It is limited evidence but there is growing evidence that we have seen too of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime," British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC.

For the time being, Sellstrom and his team of chemists, health officials, and munitions experts will be required to rely on evidence furnished by Syrian combatants and foreign governments; witness and victim testimony; or blood and tissue samples collected from potential victims in refugee camps outside Syria. But evidence collected so far from the scene of the crime, or compiled by a foreign intelligence agency, will be vulnerable to challenges, according to experts on chemical weapons. "If you are sitting in Cyprus and you're getting this stuff second hand it will be a very weak element," said Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector who led the CIA Iraq Survey Group study that concluded that Baghdad had destroyed most of its weapons of mass destruction shortly after the first Gulf War. For those interested in "promoting ambiguity" about the veracity of the findings "you can make a lot of mischief," said Duelfer. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was "brilliant' at sowing doubt about the integrity of the U.N.'s inspections. For instance, he noted that Lavrov has accused U.N. inspectors of possibly doctoring chemical samples to "taint the evidence," Duelfer recalled. In the end, said Duelfer, unless Moscow can be convinced to support this effort this is "just going to be a big mess."

If the risks mission failure are high -- and Deulfer and other top former U.N. weapons inspectors say they are -- Sellstrom has shown little sign of stress.

Another Swede, Rolf Ekeus, a former chief of the U.N. Special Commission for Iraq (UNSCOM) and a mentor to Sellstrom, said he was taken aback by his protégé's calm when he ran into him at the Swedish Foreign Ministry shortly after his appointment.

"What struck me was that he didn't appear afraid or scared to be facing this challenge," said Ekeus. "I think he should be scared. But he has tremendous experience in these matters and I think he was a little excited to bring that experience to bear on a complex new problem."

Sellstrom was recruited by Ekeus in the early 1990s to conduct inspections for UNSCOM in Iraq. Ekeus describes him as a "charming, good humored," inspector who was respected by his colleagues as well as his Iraqi counterparts. Sellstrom, he recalls, was more diplomatic than some of the more senior U.S. and British weapons inspectors, who had a reputation for gruffness in their exchanges with the Iraqis. ("We used to refer to them lovingly as the grumpy old men," said one former weapons inspector.)

"[Sellstrom] would be a natural leader," said Ekeus. "He has few enemies. Not even the Iraqis were terribly angry at him."

Faced with Iraqi accusations of bias by the inspectors, Richard Butler -- a former Australian diplomat who succeeded Ekeus as UNSCOM's chief -- selected Sellstrom in 1998 to lead a group of outside experts reviewing UNSCOM's assessment of Iraq's biological weapons program. Iraq claimed that it had provided UNSCOM with a full account, but that the inspectors unfairly refused to believe them. Sellstrom traveled to Iraq to interview top Iraqi officials about the biological weapons program. During the visit, then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, called Sellstrom into his office and tried to convince him that Iraq had complied with the U.N.'s demands. "Aziz used his personal authority and charm to encourage Sellstrom to change his tough approach," said Ekeus. "Sellstrom was not in a position to accommodate Aziz because of the lack of satisfactory responses from the Iraqi experts. In the end, [Sellstrom's report] report outlined several Iraqi shortcomings.... It was a disaster for the Iraqi side."

Ekeus cites the anecdote to highlight Sellstrom's mental toughness in the face of challenges from powerful players, an attribute that will be critical in pursuing any potential forthcoming Syrian investigation, in what's sure to be a highly charged political environment. But the episode also underscores the limitations of weapons inspections, even in what was the most intrusive weapons inspection regime in history. Baghdad persistently withheld documents, witnesses, and physical evidence of their weapons program in discussions with U.N. inspectors, fueling suspicions of hidden programs. But in the end, Aziz was not so far off the mark. Iraq's biological weapons program had largely been shelved after the Gulf War in 1991.

Former U.N. inspectors say Iraq offers a cautionary tale about the misuses and abuses of foreign intelligence. But they may yet prove to be a value asset to Sellstrom.

Hans Blix, the former chief of the U.N. Monitoring Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC), which succeeded UNSCOM in the hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, said that American and British intelligence failures leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq should not lead Sellstrom to "ignore or reject" the findings of Western intelligence in Syria. "They have sources and contacts that have value but it should be evaluated with professional, critical attitude," he said.

Blix said that Sellstrom is an "old hand" in the chemical and biological weapons field and that his experience should be "put to good use" in Syria. But Blix cautioned that Sellstrom would be wise to "leave the political judgment" to the diplomats. If his team "sticks to an absolutely professional standard the outside pressure should be irrelevant to them. And I think that attitude serves the world best and it also serves the U.K. and the United States."

The technical challenges, while daunting, are not insurmountable. Sellstrom has informed diplomats that if chemical agents have been used in Syria, the victims would possess traces of the chemical agent in their body for up to about 3 months.

Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior researcher at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, says that traces of certain second-tier chemical agents like chlorine, which was reportedly used in Aleppo, would likely have evaporated by now. The nerve gas sarin, he said, could likely still be "detected in miniscule quantities" if one gets to the scene of the crime.

"It's possible to detect [sarin byproducts] for quite a while. I'm talking weeks, perhaps months, depending on the evaporation rates. But it is inherently "unstable and would break down pretty fast."

Zanders also noted that hospital records -- particularly autopsy reports -- could provide important clues to the possible use of chemical agents. But he noted that there was no guarantee that Sellstrom would gain access to information. In the meantime, Zanders said, he remains skeptical that sarin was ever used.

"I have serious doubts about these allegations," he said. "Nothing which I have seen from pictures or film footage have shown what I would expect to see from a sarin attack."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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