BEIRUT – A team of United Nations experts arrived Sunday in Syria to launch a long-delayed investigation of allegations from both sides in the nation’s conflict that chemical weapons have been deployed on the battlefield.
The so-far unverified charges of chemical weapons’ use have become an incendiary component of the larger global debate about the bloody Syrian conflict, now in its third year with no end in sight.
The 20-member U.N. technical team, headed by Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist, arrived in Damascus in a convoy of U.N. vehicles and was whisked inside a five-star hotel under tight security, according to news accounts from the Syrian capital.
The inspectors are slated to visit three sites in Syria where chemical weapons have allegedly been used.
The U.N. team is operating under a limited mandate to verify whether chemical arms were deployed, but not to apportion blame to either side. That narrow scope of work was hammered out after months of wrangling involving Syria and other U.N. member nations.
Some outside observers have questioned the inquiry’s prospective effectiveness given the restricted mandate and the fact that some of the alleged chemical attacks occurred months ago. The state of any physical evidence remaining is a major question mark. But U.N. officials have said the investigation will provide a baseline of facts and possibly serve as a deterrent to future chemical strikes.
For months, unverified video clips showing purported victims choking, foaming at the mouth and displaying other possible symptoms of chemical attacks in Syria have made their way onto YouTube. Some journalists have interviewed alleged victims of chemical attacks in Syria.
Each side in the conflict has accused the other of using chemical weapons. Outside nations backing the government or the rebels have gotten involved, generally backing their ally’s version of events. President Barack Obama has declared that a chemical attack would be a “red line” that could trigger U.S. intervention in Syria.
The Syrian military is known to possess a considerable stockpile of chemical weapons, according to international experts, though Damascus has never publicly acknowledged having such arms. But President Bashar Assad’s government has declared publicly that it would never unleash such weapons against its own people, even if it did possess them.
The United States and its allies, France and England — all strong backers of the Syrian opposition — have cited confidential evidence indicating that the Syrian government has deployed limited amounts of sarin, a nerve gas. Syrian authorities have vehemently denied the accusation.
Russia, a major ally of Assad, has said its investigation indicated that it was the rebels who have deployed sarin gas manufactured in “cottage industry” conditions. The opposition says the Russians are mistaken.
The most notorious alleged chemical attack in Syria occurred in Khan Assal, a town outside the northern city of Aleppo, which is divided into rebel-controlled and government-controlled zones. Both sides say a rocket laden with poison gas struck Khan Assal in March, killing more than two dozen people and injuring scores more. Each side blames the other for the attack.
The government initially called for a U.N. investigation limited to the Khan Assal incident but later agreed to a broader inquiry.
Khan Assal is among the three sites that the U.N. team is reportedly planning to visit. The other two destinations remained confidential. The U.N. team is expected to remain in Syria for at least two weeks.
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