This morning UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed members of the Security Council on the report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria. Professor Ake Sellstrom, the UN Chief Investigator on the mission to Syria, joined the Council and the Secretary General to discuss the report’s findings. The report concludes unequivocally that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21, 2013, causing numerous casualties, particularly among civilians.
While the United States will continue analyzing the UN’s findings carefully, a preliminary review makes clear that only the regime could have carried out this large-scale chemical weapons attack.
Indeed, several crucial details confirm the regime’s guilt. The United States has associated one of the munitions identified in the UN report -- 122 mm improvised rockets -- with previous Assad regime attacks. We have reviewed thousands of open source videos related to the current conflict in Syria, but have not observed the opposition manufacturing or using this style of rocket.
Equally significant, the environmental, chemical, and medical samples that the UN investigators collected provide clear and compelling evidence that the surface-to-surface rockets used in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21 contained the nerve agent sarin. We know the regime possesses sarin. We have no evidence, however, that the opposition does.
During his briefing Professor Sellstrom revealed a telling detail about the level of sophistication involved in the manufacture of the sarin used on August 21, one which further implicates the Assad regime’s chemical weapons program. Responding to a question from Russia, Dr. Sellstrom stated the sarin used was of a higher quality than that used in Iraq’s program. He added that the markings on the weapons obtained from the site suggested they were made professionally, and that the rockets used did not have the characteristics of improvised devices they had seen before.
Even before the release of the UN’s report, we already knew that in the days before the attack, Assad’s chemical weapons experts distributed gas masks to regime troops. Moreover, it was Syrian military that fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into neighborhoods that the military had been trying to clear of opposition forces. It defies logic to think that the opposition would have infiltrated a regime-controlled area to fire on the territory it already held.
The gas attack on Ghouta represents the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since 1988 -- and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century. “This is a war crime,” Secretary-General Ban told reporters today at the United Nations.
The UN report complements the information the United States government has worked hard to make available not only to world leaders and UN diplomats, but to American citizens and the rest of the global community. Addressing the press following the UN briefing, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said, “The more countries around the world are confronted with the hard facts of what occurred on August 21, the more they recognize that the steep price of impunity for Assad could extend well beyond Syria. That is why President Obama sought to mobilize the international community to act to deter and degrade Assad’s ability to use or proliferate these weapons.”
You can read Ambassador Power’s full remarks here, or watch the video of it here. If you have not had a chance to review the UN report yet, you can read it online. You should be aware that the UN investigators who collected the data for the report did so at great personal risk. They put their lives on the line to gather testimony from survivors, medical personnel, and first responders and collect biomedical evidence and soil and environmental samples. You should also know, as Secretary-General Ban told reporters at UN headquarters today, that “the report makes for chilling reading.”
About the Author: Erin Pelton serves as Spokesperson at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.