Reuters reports: The longer chemical weapons inspectors wait in a Damascus luxury hotel for permission to drive up the road to the site of what appears to be the worst poison gas attack in a quarter century, the less likely they will be able to get to the bottom of it.
The poisoning deaths of many hundreds of people took place only three days after a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts arrived in Syria. But their limited mandate means the inspectors have so far been powerless to go to the scene, a short drive from where they are staying.
“We’re being exterminated with poison gas while they drink their coffee and sit inside their hotels,” said Bara Abdelrahman, an activist in one of the Damascus suburbs where rebels say government rockets brought the poison gas that killed hundreds of people before dawn on Wednesday.
The Syrian government denies it was behind the mass killing, the deadliest incident of any kind in Syria’s two-and-a-half year civil war and the worst apparent chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988.
The United Nations has asked President Bashar al-Assad’s government for access to the scene, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it should be investigated “without delay”.
Former weapons investigators say every hour matters.
“The longer it takes, the easier it is for anybody who has used it to try to cover up,” said Demetrius Perricos, who headed the U.N.’s team of weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 2000s.
“The more you cover up, the more time it takes afterwards to uncover it. So time is definitely not something that you want to take, you don’t want to do it slowly,” Perricos told Reuters.
Chemical weapons experts say there is little doubt that it was exposure to poison gas of some kind that killed the hundreds of victims, although exactly what chemicals were used could not be determined from just looking at images.
“Clearly, something has killed a lot of people,” says Dan Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army chemical officer and Department of Homeland Security expert now a private consultant. “We’re not going to know what until someone gets a sample.”
Stephen Johnson, a former British Army officer specializing in chemical, biological and nuclear warfare and now visiting fellow at Cranfield University’s forensic unit, said it was also “staggeringly effective if it is a chemical attack, which implies more than a casual rocket or two.”
Reuters also reports: Talk, notably from France and Britain, of a forceful foreign response remains unlikely to be translated into rapid, concerted action given division between the West and Russia at Wednesday’s U.N. Security Council meeting, and caution from Washington on Thursday.
Moscow has said rebels may have released gas to discredit Assad and urged him to agree to a U.N. inspection. On Wednesday, Russian objections to Western pressure on Syria saw the Security Council merely call in vague terms for “clarity” – a position increasingly frustrated Syrian rebels described as “shameful”.
The State Department said senior U.S. and Russian diplomats would meet in The Hague next Wednesday to discuss ending Syria’s civil war, in what would be the first such meeting since allegations of the chemical attack.
A senior State Department official said chemical weapons would also be discussed at the meeting. The meeting had previously been announced, but no date had been released.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Syria must let the U.N. team already in Damascus investigate “without delay”. He said he would send a top U.N. disarmament official, Angela Kane, to lobby the Syrian government in person.
Ban said he expected a swift, positive answer.
Obama has directed U.S. intelligence agencies to urgently help establish what caused the deaths, a State Department spokeswoman said while acknowledging it may be difficult given that the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Syria.
“At this time, right now, we are unable to conclusively determine CW (chemical weapons) use,” the State Department’s Jen Psaki told reporters. “We are doing everything possible in our power to nail down the facts,” she added.
Another U.S. official said intelligence agencies were not given a deadline and would take the time needed to “reach a conclusion with confidence.”
Don’t expect that determination to take place any time soon. The Obama administration is still trying to figure out whether a military coup took place in Egypt and if that determination is a challenge then coming to a conclusion about the use of chemical weapons in Damascus can be assumed to be well nigh impossible.
But let’s indulge the conspiracy theorists and assume that Assad has been the victim of a false flag operation. If that was the case, why would he now place a single obstacle in the way of those who could establish his innocence? Why would he ignore the advice of his loyal ally, Russia, which is to let the inspectors do their work?
The fact is, if there was some compelling evidence that this attack could be blamed on Jabhat al-Nusra or some other rebel group, there would be discreet sighs of relief in many Western capitals.
EA WorldView provides a transcript of the doctor speaking in the video above:
You call these terrorists? These are children. Four or six missiles hit Zamalka. Look. I promise you that in one other hospital there are 155 dead.
Look at them! Children. Women. “Did you try to rescue them”? No, they were killed immediately. I swear to you some families were killed entirely. Mom, Dad, kids, and grandparents killed as they lay sleeping in their homes. We just brought down from three buildings entire families killed in their sleep. You will see in a bit. We will issue names for everyone. So far we have confirmed 400-500 martyrs [deaths], even 600. That number is climbing and we have wounded people who are almost martyrs.
I swear by God. When will this Government come and give a verdict on this? When will they act like a Government? When will traitor Bashar [President Assad] own up? God curse him and his parents.
Where is [United Nations envoy Lakhdar] Brahimi? [Former UN envoy] Annan, you talk of rights of children and people. Where are you? Come and see these children now! Don’t talk on TV. Just come and see. Come! God help us…
Look at this child. Look! We don’t know who his parents are. They’re just numbers now.