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UN inspectors examine Syria poison gas allegations

Damascus has allowed UN chemical weapons inspectors access to areas allegedly attacked with poison gas last week. The mission is to determine whether an attack actually took place - but not who was responsible.

Recent events show how sensitive the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors' mission is: on Monday (26.08.2013), unidentified snipers shot at the UN convoy near Damascus. It is not clear whether they wanted to force the inspectors to turn back, or merely to make the team disconcerted.

What is clear, however, is that a major propagandistic tug-of-war is taking place concerning the claimed use of chemical weapons and alleged perpetrators.

Bashar al-Assad's regime gave in to UN demands on Sunday and agreed to let the inspectors - who had arrived in Syria three days before Wednesday's incident to investigate reports on the possible use of chemical weapons earlier this year - to visit the site of the most recent suspected poison gas attack as of Monday.

Jan van Aken (Photo: imago/Jens Jeske)

Well-versed: van Aken is a former UN weapons inspector

In UN circles, there is certainty that such weapons were used in the past. According to a UN report, there is "ample evidence" that chemical weapons were used to a limited extent in at least four cases from mid-January to mid-May 2013.

It is regarded as highly probable that chemical weapons were also used last Wednesday in an attack on several villages east of Damascus. Evidence indicates "massive contact with a neurotoxic agent," Doctors without Borders summarized in its investigation. The aid organization says 3,600 people with symptoms pointing to a nerve agent were treated in the hospitals supervised by Doctors without Borders - and 355 died.

Good chance of clarification

The UN mission stands a good chance to clarify issues surrounding the most recent poison gas attack, said Jan van Aken, a Left Party member of German parliament. "By examining survivors, the inspectors in Syria can easily determine whether poison gas was used or not," van Aken told DW. "They can tell within minutes. A bit later, after the lab work is done, they can presumably say which poison was used - or if in fact this was a chemical weapons attack at all."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem and U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane (Photo: REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters)

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem meets UN disarmament representative Angela Kane

The German politician, who served as a UN biological weapons inspector from 2004 to 2006, does not share concerns voiced by Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague that evidence may already have been destroyed. He dismisses Hague's remarks as "pure propaganda," and explained that an investigation is still technically possible by examining survivors. "Even days of continued fighting can not have changed their enzyme status or urine samples," van Aken said.

Propaganda and facts

The UN mission may not, however, answer one key question: "The inspectors can only say whether chemical weapons were used, but not who did it," van Aken said, adding that the political propaganda battle has already begun.

According van Aken, technical evidence would not help pinpoint who was behind the attacks. The situation in Syria is too complex to allow clear-cut conclusions, he says. "Even if you find the remnants of a Syrian missile with traces of a nerve agent, you still don't know whether Assad's troops fired it, or whether opposition rebels seized it during an attack on an army base somewhere in the north, and later employed it."

Green light to inspect the sites

An activist wearing a gas mask stands next to a dead dog as he looks for dead bodies to collect samples to check for chemical weapon use (Photo: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)

An activist checking for chemical weapons use

For the time being, the UN inspectors will only be able to determine whether chemical weapons were used or not. And that is a precondition for possible consequences, van Aken says. "If these weapons were employed, we're talking about a crime against humanity," van Aken said. That's what the team must now determine. "When the civil war is over, those responsible must be brought to justice," he said.

It is possible to determine who was behind the attacks through other means, the German politician added: "People will start to talk. There might be defectors, documents or orders might be made public." Only time will tell, van Aken said, and concluded: "Such a crime cannot go unpunished."

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