The Race Against the Clock for UN Weapons Investigators

UN weapons inspectors are working "round the clock." But will the world see their full report on Syria before a possible U.S. military strike?
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UN weapons inspectors are working "round the clock." But will the world see their full report on Syria before a possible U.S. military strike?

In an exchange of emails this week with the spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, I have been digging into a story that has received little attention: Among the materials the UN weapons investigators are examining is a 100-page Russian report, submitted to the secretary general in July, that claims Syrian rebels -- not Bashar al-Assad's forces -- carried out a chemical weapons attack last March near Aleppo.

The news comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the U.S. Wednesday against striking Syria and as Russia increased its naval presence in the Mediterranean. Yesterday afternoon for the first time, the Russian Foreign Ministry made public portions of the report.

My knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss the report as Russian propaganda. But with the looming U.S. threat to attack the Assad regime in punishment for last week's horrific chemical attack in Damascus, I emailed the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to find out more about the Aleppo incident. A spokesperson confirmed to me that Ban Ki-moon indeed had received the Russian report in July:

"The report is with the UN investigation team along with many other pieces of information from a variety of sources," UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky told me by email. "The report was received by the Secretary-General and he of course made sure the team received it."

The news struck me as a potential game-changer in the run-up to next week's vote in Congress about authorizing U.S. military strikes against Syria. That is because of the chance, however slim, that the Syrian opposition, not the regime, could have chemical weapons, too. I realize it is impossible at this point to evaluate the veracity of the Russian report, but the fact that the UN inspectors visited the attack site in August to conduct their own investigation suggests they are taking it seriously. Some observers have raised the possibility that both sides of the Syrian civil war possess -- and may have used -- chemical weapons. So far the UN has been silent on that issue.

I wonder if that's about to change.

The attack in Aleppo

The attack in question occurred in Khan al-Assal, a suburb of Aleppo, on March 19, 2013, killing 26 people, including 16 soldiers, and wounded 86 others, according to what Ambassador Churkin told reporters in July. While rebels blame the government for the attack, findings from the Russian report that were released yesterday claim that the projectile believed to be used in the incident "does not belong to the standard ammunition of the Syrian army and was crudely [made] according to type and parameters of the rocket-propelled unguided missiles manufactured in the north of Syria by the so-called Bashair al-Nasr brigade."

When he presented the report to the UN in July, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin charged that the rocket used in the attack "was not industrially manufactured and was filled with sarin." Churkin said the samples indicated the sarin and the projectile were produced in "cottage industry" conditions, according to a CBS News report.

It is true that the stated mission of UN inspectors in Syria is to determine whether a chemical attack has taken place, "not to specify who might have been responsible." However, the information they provide (e.g., whether the projectiles used to deliver poison gas were homemade or military-grade) could be vital to American lawmakers. While not dispositive of the issue, it could provide clues to who was responsible.

Getting it right this time

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry's insistence that the Obama administration is "more than mindful of the Iraq experience," the White House has shown scant interest in waiting for the UN report. In his speech last week outlining the White House's evidence against Assad, Kerry dismissed the UN's findings before weapons inspectors had even departed Syria:

"The UN can't tell us anything that we haven't shared with you this afternoon or that we don't already know," Kerry said.

I find this deeply troubling, especially in view of the chance that U.S. strikes could cause more civilian casualties. To me, one of the central lessons of the "Iraq experience" was realizing that the rush to war was based on faulty evidence and that U.S. officials had sidestepped the conclusions of UN inspectors.

"Flooding the zone"

According to news reports, the White House is "flooding the zone" this week to persuade members of Congress to support an attack on the Assad regime. Fast moving developments in just the last few days seem to indicate that Russia is trying to elbow its way into the public debate. Those developments include the increased presence of Russian warships in the Mediterranean, Putin's announcement over Labor Day Weekend that he may send a delegation of Russian lawmakers to meet with their American counterparts in Washington and a veiled threat, issued just today, that Russia may increase weapons deliveries to U.S. foes if the U.S. strikes Syria.

There's no question that the massacre on August 21 was far deadlier than the March incident in Aleppo. The importance of the evidence from the earlier attack is not to equate it to the August 21 incident or to compare the two sides of the Syrian conflict. It's the principle behind the red line that condemns the use of chemical weapons: If both sides are employing them, would Congress think differently about U.S. intervention?

Is the Russian report a sham?

There is certainly much to doubt about the objectivity of Russia's report, especially in light of Russia's documented sale of weapons to the Syrian government -- during a period when 100,000 Syrian civilians have been killed -- and Putin's well-known alliance with the murderous Assad regime. Moreover, the team of Russian scientists that conducted the study, reportedly certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was invited by Assad.

Still, what if the rebels indeed were responsible for the Aleppo attack? Given the potential for a U.S. strike to ignite a far larger conflict in the Middle East, and reports that al Qaeda units in the Syrian opposition might be strengthened by the proposed U.S. attack, shouldn't the U.S. wait for the UN investigation to conclude?

Certainly, if the UN debunks the Russian report -- that is, if evidence from the UN suggests the Assad regime committed the atrocity in Aleppo -- that could strengthen President Obama's case for a military strike.

The August 21 chemical attack, too, has not been without its own questions about the evidence. Last week, when the British Parliament voted against military action in Syria, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that it was "highly likely" Assad was responsible for the August 21st chemical attack, but admitted that he was not "100 percent certain." Just this morning, he said that was predicated on the argument that there are simply "no plausible alternate scenarios." My question now is whether the Aleppo incident raises such a scenario.

Other voices are also advising caution. The New York Times maintains that claims that Assad committed last week's massacre in Damascus are still lacking hard evidence. And, according to a CBS News analysis, the case Kerry put forward last week is "mostly circumstantial in nature."

Last week, the UN estimated that its anxiously awaited report would take two weeks. But over last weekend, Ban Ki-moon directed his UN inspections team to speed up their efforts, citing the "horrendous magnitude" of the alleged attacks but also, presumably, because the U.S. Congress may cast a vote before the UN can finish its report.

On Labor Day, Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson told me that the need for caution was paramount: "We are not giving a timeline except to say the report will be produced as soon as feasible while ensuring the integrity of the analytical process."

Last night, in a third email, he wrote me that "experts are working round the clock on the analysis to complete the report as soon as possible." Then he added a stark reminder: "They are working to a scientific, not political timeline."

I happen to think he's right. This time around, let's wait to find out what the UN has to say.

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