Where the UN Inspectors Won’t Be Going

October 1, 2013

UN weapons inspectors have returned to Syria and have launched an investigation into seven alleged chemical weapons attacks across the country. Some of the sites were selected before the August 21st chemical weapons attack that brought the world to the brink of war, and some of them are new sites around Damascus. However, there is one location that will not be a target for UN inspectors, and this site may hold key evidence about which side, either the regime or a Syrian rebel group, is behind these other attacks. (The Russian and Syrian governments have gone out of their way to make sure that most people have never even heard of it.)

Both the Russian government and the Assad regime say that the Syrian rebels launched a sarin attack against a position occupied by Assad forces on March 19th. According to the Russian government, they have presented definitive proof that a Syrian rebel group, the Basha’ir al-Nasr brigade, used a crudely constructed homemade device, known as a “Basha’ir 3 missile,” to deliver Sarin, killing 26 people, including 16 soldiers. As the Syrian military had a significant presence in the town of Khan al-Assal at the time, they posted many videos and pictures of the victims. As such, the images of the alleged chemical attack were rebroadcast by many international media groups, and Khan al-Assal secured its place in the international conversation about chemical weapons in Syria.

The UN has placed a premium on going to Khan al-Assal for some time. Both the Russian and Syrian governments have pressed them to go there in order to investigate the incident. As these are serious charges being levied against the Syrian rebels by both Russia and Syria, the UN should be, and is planning on, investigating the location.

But there are several glaring omissions in most news reports about the UN mission, and about the Khan al-Assal attack, that would stand as evidence that the Assad/Putin alliance is lying about chemical weapons attacks, and that the United Nations effort to end the Syrian crisis is hopelessly flawed.

Russia says the rebels conducted the Khan al-Assal attack

On March 19th, reports of a chemical weapons attack came flooding across various social networks, and into my various inboxes. The first tweets about Khan al-Assal that day mentioned a long-range rocket hitting the town. Soon after, opposition sources reported that there were dozens of victims suffering from symptoms consistent with a chemical weapons attack in Khan al-Assal. Many hours later, Syrian State TV reported the incident. Some opposition reports said that a rocket missed the opposition-controlled area and landed in territory controlled by the regime.

The Syrian Information Minister reported that a rocket was fired by rebels from a town 50 kilometers away. On two occasions, the Russian government said that it had irrefutable proof that the rebels conducted this attack using a crudely constructed rocket.

There are several glaring problems with this claim. Arms experts I’ve consulted agree that the Syrian rebels do not have the capability of launching a homemade rocket with a range of 50 kilometers. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that a crudely manufactured device is capable of dispersing sarin effectively without burning it. Sarin is also highly corrosive, and extremely hazardous to handle. In short, there are many reasons why militaries that have developed chemical-weapon delivery systems have spent millions of dollars on research and development, and the idea that rebels could make such a weapon on a battlefield seems far-fetched to many arms experts.

Ultimately, however, until Russia releases the details of their report, it is impossible to debunk their claims. One might wonder why, when the United States seemed so close to unilateral action against Syria just a short while ago, the Russian government refused to make the details of its “proof” available for the public to dissect. However, one key missing detail in Russia’s claims might hold a clue.

There were two reported chemical weapons attacks on March 19, 2013

The same day as the Khan al-Assal attack, there were also reports of another incident, hundreds of kilometers away from Khan al-Assal, in a little town, Otaybeh, southeast of Damascus. Opposition sources uploaded videos that reportedly showed both fighters and civilians affected by some sort of chemical attack in Otaybeh. These videos shared many similarities to those published by Syrian state media, in the sense that the victims in the videos shares similar symptoms.

But the Syrian state media, and the Russian and Assad governments, have never made any reference to the Otaybeh attack. Largely as a result, most news stories about Russia’s allegations concerning the Khan al-Assal attack fail to mention the simultaneous incident near Damascus.

But the Otaybeh incident could hold the key to discovering who was responsible for the Khan al-Assal attack, as well as others. Occam’s razor tells us that, if the use of sarin can be confirmed at both Khan al-Assal and Otaybeh, then the most likely explanation is the simplest – that the same side used the weapon at both locations.

It is interesting, then, that Syrian radar picked up a rocket in rural Aleppo, but failed to pick one up outside the capital, Damascus. It is interesting that the Russians would like to grant access to the UN at a site that has been in Assad control for the vast majority of the time since the attack, but does not even recognize the incident that happened in rebel territory. It is interesting that Russia has blamed the rebels for blocking access to UN inspectors, when it is the Syrian government that has repeatedly blocked UN weapons inspectors from visiting any chemical weapons sites.

Conducting a coordinated chemical weapons attack – at two different locations that are divided by many hundreds of kilometers of battlefield – would require expertise and training, to say nothing of military efficiency. Human Rights Watch made similar observations about the August 21st chemical weapons attack in Damascus. The scale and complexity of such missions are further evidence that the Assad government, not a fringe rebel group, conducted these attacks. It’s no mystery, then, that the Russian government does not want UN inspectors in Otaybeh.

The UN Deadlock

And, as long as Russia is willing to block progress on Syria while pretending to be working toward resolving the conflict – just as they have done for the last two years – then the United Nations will continue to bow to Russia’s requests. This means that, while the UN report implicates Assad (when reading between the lines) as the culprit for the August 21st attack, the UN can never point the finger at Assad. This means that UN inspectors may make it to Khan al-Assal, but they’ll see what the Assad regime wants them to see, and they’ll never make it to Otaybeh. This means that the UN will never have answers that are beyond Russia’s skepticism. It also means that if the international community is relying on the United Nations to solve this problem, then Putin will succeed in delaying, possibly indefinitely, international progress on the Syria crisis.