U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon on Thursday dispatched his top disarmament official to Syria to try to persuade the Assad government to grant weapons inspectors access to the site of what's alleged to be the worst chemical attack in decades.
It's all part of an effort by the U.N. and the broader international community to force Syria into opening up its supposedly-chemical battlefields to the world. So far, Damascus has been immune to the pressure.
"The secretary general believes that the incidents reported yesterday need to be investigated without delay," according to a statement from Ban's office.
"The Secretary-General now calls for the Mission, presently in Damascus, to be granted permission and access to swiftly investigate the incident which occurred on the morning of 21 August 2013," the statement added. "A formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the Government of Syria in this regard. He expects to receive a positive response without delay."
Syrian opposition activists claim that Assad's forces government gassed 500 to more than 1000 people in the Ghouta region east of Damascus. If true, it would not only be the largest chemical weapons attack since the beginning of the conflict. It would be the largest such strike since the darkest days of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
The Syrian National Coalition issued a statement urging Ban to "urgently dispatch its fact-finding mission" to the site, which is only a few miles away from the investigators' hotel, and carried out a "full investigation" into what happened.
"The Syrian regime unleashed a series of bombardments of opposition-held suburbs of Damascus," Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. and U.N. representative of the Syrian National Coalition wrote Wednesday in a letter to the U.N. chief that was made available to Foreign Policy. "This included the launching of rockets with toxic agents against the civilian neighborhoods concentrated in eastern Ghouta, specifically Joubar, Zamalka, Ain Terma, and Moadamiya."
"Initial medical reports have indicated that casualties, many of them women and children, have displayed symptoms associated with the use of chemical weapons, including asphyxiation, salivating and blurred vision," Ghadbian added. "There are strong indications and reliable reports that chemical weapons were used in these attacks, which may have killed in excess of 1,100 people."
The U.N. team, headed by Swedish scientist, Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Damascus for what was expected to be a 14-day probe into alleged chemical weapons use. The U.N. team has reached an agreement with the government to investigate at least three sites, including the village of Khan Al Assal, where Syrian authorities claim their forces were subject to a chemical weapons attack by opposition rebels. Britain, France and the United States say there is no evidence that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons, but they say that Syria forces may have been exposed in a "friendly fire incident."
The United States mounted an effort Wednesday to convince Syria's chief patron, Russia, to support a Security Council statement calling on Syria to strengthen the hands of the U.N. inspection team. But Moscow and China blocked the initiative.
The U.N. push for access comes one day after Britain, France, the United States and 34 other governments appealed in a confidential letter to the U.N. chief to investigate the incident at Rif Damascus. The letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, says that "given the gravity of these reports" of chemical weapons use "we judge it essential that all the pertinent facts are swiftly investigated."
"We therefore request that you launch an urgent investigation into these allegations as expeditiously as possible... and report back to member states as soon as possible," the letter added. "We are aware that the U.N. Mission is now in Damascus. We urge you to do all you can to ensure that the Mission has urgent access to all relevant sites and sources of information."
Britain and France, meanwhile, sought to ratchet up pressure on the Syrian government to allow inspectors access to the latest alleged chemical weapons incident. France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said foreign power must be prepared to intervene in Syria if the allegations of chemical weapons prove true. But he made clear that France would not send its own forces into Syria to confront Syria, and no other foreign powers appear willing to do so.
Syria, meanwhile, has categorically denied it has used chemical weapons in the recent incident, charging that the Syrian opposition is simply seeking to gin up international opposition to the government. Syria' Information Minister Omran Zoabi called the allegations "illogical and fabricated." The Syrian government, according to Syria officials, had no interest in launching a chemical weapons attack with a team of U.N. inspectors in town.
One Security Council diplomat said that Wednesday's letter to the U.N. Secretary General was intended to "increase political pressure on Syria" to permit the inspection team access to the site of the latest incident. The problem, the official said, is that there "is no fixed time" for such an investigation to take place. "This still remains very much a discussion between the Syrian government on the one hand and Sellstrom's team on the other. It's hard to foresee how much time it will take."
The council diplomat, whose government signed the letter, said that diplomats still remained puzzled at what motivation Syrian authorities would have to undertake a chemical weapons attack while U.N. inspectors were in the area.
"We are all asking ourselves this same question, [because] this is not logical," the diplomat said. "What would be their interest in launching such an attack?"
But the diplomat said that the reports and video footage suggest something terrible has happened and that there is a vital need to investigate to get to the bottom of what happened.
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Louai Beshara/ AFP