UN arms experts, wearing a gas mask, inspect a site of an alleged chemical attack near Damascus.
UN arms experts, wearing a gas mask, inspect a site of an alleged chemical attack near Damascus. Photo by Reuters
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United Nations inspectors have reportedly gathered a large amount of circumstantial evidence proving that nerve gas was used in the August 21 attack near Damascus, and indicating that President Bashar Assad's regime was responsible for unleashing chemical weapons against the Syrian people.

UN diplomats intimate with the details of the UN investigation told Foreign Policy that the inspectors' report would not directly accuse the Assad regime of using chemical weapons, but would provide strong circumstantial evidence gathered from the area proving that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack. Some 1,400 people were killed in that attack, according to U.S. estimates.

The investigators are expected to complete their report within the next few days.

Haaretz in-depth coverage of the crisis in Syria: The Speech on Syria that Obama should have given weeks ago (Chemi Shalev) ||Russian proposal on chemical weapons might just resolve Syria face-off (Amos Harel) || Israel adamant it won't ratify chemical arms treaty before hostile neighbors (Barak Ravid) || Syria's embattled Christians don't know which side to believe (Jacky Khoury)

The international body is currently in the midst of diplomatic negotiations over the Syrian crisis. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to meet in Geneva on Thursday to try to agree on a strategy to eliminate the Syrian arsenal, following a Russian proposal that the stockpile be transferred to international control and eventually dismantled.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council met in New York on Wednesday to discuss the plan, which would aim to avert a U.S. military strike.

But the Western-backed Syrian rebel leadership council has rejected the proposal as insufficient.

"We announce our definitive rejection of the Russian initiative to place chemical weapons under international custody," Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, said in a video posted online late on Wednesday.

Flanked by four rebel leaders, Idriss said Assad must be held accountable after Syria admitted for the first time to possessing chemical weapons - something it says it needed to counter Israel's assumed nuclear arsenal.

"We ask that the international community not be content with withdrawing chemical weapons, which are a criminal instrument, but to hold the perpetrator accountable and prosecute him at the International Criminal Court," Idriss said.

"Removing the criminal tools is one matter and holding the criminal accountable is another," he said, calling on "friendly" countries to provide more weapons and ammunition to the rebels.

Minister Steinitz: Syria chemical weapons must be destroyed

A senior Israeli official close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced cautious support on Thursday for the Russian offer.

"I cannot say that we have full faith, but if this Russian proposal ... will really remove the chemical weaponry from Syria, first of all, and will then dismantle it ... then this is a way to end this tragedy and a way to end this threat too," Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said.

Speaking on Army Radio, Steinitz said implementation of the plan should also require that Moscow "guarantee Syria is cleansed of chemical weaponry."

Wary of appearing to meddle in the big-power struggle over the Syrian civil war that has escalated since Assad's forces' alleged gas attack, Israel has largely avoided public comment.

Netanyahu on Wednesday demanded the Assad government be "stripped of its chemical weapons" but stopped short of specifically endorsing the Russian proposal, which has been accepted by Damascus.

The remarks by Steinitz suggested that Israel would want any consensual decommissioning of Syria's chemical arsenal to be expedited by sending it abroad first.

David Friedman, a former counter-proliferation official with Israel's Defense Ministry, told Reuters that neutralizing the weapons inside Syria could take 1-2 years but that the process could be shortened were they shipped out to Russia, which is better equipped with chemical counter-agents and incinerators.