UNITED NATIONS/DAMASCUS - The United Nations said Sunday its experts would start their probe of an alleged Syrian chemical weapons site Monday (today).
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “has instructed the mission ... currently in Damascus, to focus its attention on ascertaining the facts of the 21 August incident as its highest priority,” the UN said in a statement.
“The mission is preparing to conduct on-site fact-finding activities, starting tomorrow, Monday, 26 August.”
The mission had been repeatedly delayed amid differences with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the scope of the probe into the alleged use of chemical arms in the 29-month civil war.
The UN announcement came shortly after Damascus gave the green light for the inspectors to carry out the probe into the alleged use of chemical weapons near the Syrian capital on Wednesday. Doctors Without Borders has said 355 people died last week of ‘neurotoxic’ symptoms, after the opposition claimed regime forces unleashed chemicals east and southwest of Damascus causing more than 1,300 deaths.
Ban “notes the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic affirmed that it will provide the necessary cooperation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident,” the UN statement said.
“The Secretary-General would like to reiterate that all relevant parties equally share the responsibility of cooperating in urgently generating a safe environment for the mission to do its job efficiently and providing all necessary information.”
The UN team arrived in Damascus last week to begin the hard-won mission, which UN officials originally said would last two weeks and cover three sites.
In Washington, the United States said Sunday there was ‘very little doubt’ Syrian forces had used chemical weapons on civilians and dismissed an offer by Damascus for a UN team to view the attack site.
The comments marked a significant escalation of a showdown over the horrific attack outside the Syrian capital which killed up to 1,300 people last week, and came as Washington appeared to be positioning for possible military action.
Officials said President Barack Obama, who held crisis talks Saturday with top aides, would make an “informed decision” about how to respond to an “indiscriminate” chemical weapons attack.
The official told AFP that based on the reported number of victims and their symptoms, and US and foreign intelligence, “There is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Washington had noted that Syria had offered to let UN inspectors view the site of the alleged attack on Monday, but suggested it was too little, too late. “If the Syrian government had nothing to hide and wanted to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons in this incident, it would have ceased its attacks on the area and granted immediate access to the UN five days ago,” the official said. “At this juncture, the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days.”
A US diplomatic offensive led by Secretary of State John Kerry, comments coming from the White House and signs the Pentagon is positioning ships closer to Syria fueled an impression that Obama may be getting ready to jettison his antipathy to new Middle Eastern entanglements and to order limited military action.
Polls show Americans are wary of getting into another war in the Middle East. But Obama’s credibility is on the line after he said last year that the use of large-scale chemical weapons in Syria would cross a US ‘red line’.
Washington may also want to send a signal that weapons of mass destruction, like chemical arms, cannot be used in Syria, or elsewhere, with impunity.
Obama called British Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday to discuss options, after a meeting of all his top diplomatic, military and intelligence chiefs at the White House.
Kerry has spent days on the phone with Washington’s foreign partners.
Russia welcomed Damascus’ offer to allow a mission by UN inspectors probing alleged chemical weapons use and warned the West that military action against the Syrian regime would be a “tragic mistake”.
“We strongly urge those who, by attempting to impose their own results on the UN experts, are raising the possibility of a military operation in Syria to use their common sense and refrain from committing a tragic mistake,” foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement in Moscow.
Russia - which together with Iran and China has supported Assad throughout the 29-month-old Syrian crisis - urged the rebel camp to guarantee the safety of the UN team, led by professor Aake Sellstroem.
“It is important that the armed opposition controlling part of Eastern Ghouta ensure that the UN mission is able to operate safely and refrain from the kind of armed provocation witnessed against UN observers last summer,” he said.
Pressure mounted on Damascus to allow a UN probe of chemical attacks, with French President Francois Hollande saying evidence indicated the regime in war-ravaged Syria was to blame and Israel demanding action against its neighbour.