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A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, inspects one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus' suburb of Zamalka August 29, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Mohammad Abdullah)
Syrien UN-Kontrolleure überprüfen Vorwürfe zu GiftgasangriffImage: Reuters/Mohammad Abdullah

Searching for the truth

Nils Naumann / cb
September 4, 2013

The US government, France and the German intelligence service all agree that Syrian President Assad's troops used chemical weapons. But how can they be so sure? Critics say there's no definite proof.


The pictures show dozens of bodies, children's among them, lying motionless on the floor of an improvised hospital room. Other people are shaking and gaping for breath. Those are the pictures of August 21, of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria's capital, Damascus. Syrian opposition supporters have posted them on the Internet and they were also globally distributed by news websites, TV stations and newspapers.

But what really happened that night? The US government and France are completely certain: it was an attack against the Syrian people with chemical weapons. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said in parliament on Tuesday (03.09.2013), "There is no doubt that international law has been egregiously violated through the cruel use of chemical weapons."

UN-inspection takes time

This certainty comes at a time when the UN's chemical weapons experts haven't taken a stance yet. Their report has not yet been released as samples taken in Damascus are being evaluated.

"You can't do the analysis in two or three days," said Ralf Trapp, a chemical weapons expert at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. "The quality standards are extremely high. Small mistakes can render the entire report worthless."

Trapp said he expects the analysis of the samples to take two to three weeks.

A UN convoy of vehicles, carrying inspectors investigating allegations of the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons, drives through the Lebanese village of Taanayel after crossing into Lebanon from Syria on August 31, 2013. (Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)
The UN-inspectors were shot at on their way to the site of the alleged chemical-weapons-attackImage: AFP/Getty Images

That's why Jan van Aken, a Left Party politician who previously worked as a biological weapons expert for the United Nations, thinks it's too early to make decisions: "My gut feeling tells me it probably was a chemical weapons attack, but the final, definitive evidence still hasn't presented itself."

Van Aken is in favor of waiting for the UN inspectors' report before taking action on Syria. "The important thing about the United Nations is that they have a secure chain from taking the samples to evaluating them at the lab," he said, adding that all parties can monitor that chain. "With this process, we get to a final result that the parties find credible. If this chain wasn't as easily observable, I wouldn't trust a sample."

Thus, he said he doesn't trust the samples that were presented as proof by the United States because such samples could have been manipulated.

Who is behind the attack?

For the United States and France, however, it's clear that a chemical weapons attack occurred. Both countries also say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the attack. US Secretary of State John Kerry cited "clear and conclusive" evidence for that. He claimed US intelligence agencies examined all the facts and knew how the events went down. According to US statements, 1,429 people were killed in the attack, at least 426 of them children.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the situation in Syria at the State Department in Washington, August 30, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
Kerry: Assad was behind the attackImage: Reuters

As proof, the US representatives said they had knowledge gained via air-reconnaissance and wiretapping. In addition, there are reports from medical personnel, eye-witness-reports and statements from "highly trustworthy" NGOs, the US said.

Former weapons inspector van Aken remained skeptical. He said there is not one real piece of evidence in Kerry's report: "That's the thinnest thing I've seen in a long time." He called it a collection of assumptions and assertions.

One example van Aken pointed out is the recording of a conversation with a high-ranking Assad official, in which the man allegedly admits to the attack. This tape is not publically accessible, van Aken said, and can't be verified.

He also doesn't believe in the American and French line of reasoning that purports only Assad's troops had the capacity for a chemical weapons attack.

"There were renegades from the Syrian army who could have taken chemical weapons along," van Aken said. "Army bases and weapon arsenals were taken by rebels, who then had plenty of opportunities to get their hands on these weapons."

Using the weapons isn't hugely complicatedly, according to the Left politician: "Those are artillery grenades, you put them in mortars and you fire them."

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position by pointing an artillery weapon towards the sky in Idlib, May 18, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof)
The Syrian rebels are highly weaponized as well - did they stage the chemical-weapons-attack?Image: Reuters

Justice takes time

The German intelligence agency for foreign affairs (BND) apparently believes that Assad is behind the alleged chemical-weapons-attack, according to the online version of the newsmagazine "Der Spiegel." The website reported that BND head Gerhard Schindler told selected parliament representatives that definitive proof was missing, but that after an in-depth analysis his organization believed that the Assad regime was the perpetrator.

According to the website, the BND has recorded a conversation between a leading member of the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian embassy. In this conversation, the Hezbollah leader allegedly mentioned that the regime, which Hezbollah supports, initiated the attack.

But this, too, is only "very flimsy evidence," van Aken said. "Why should a Hezbollah leader know something about an attack with chemical weapons in Syria? He probably only made assumptions on the phone."

The Left Party politician said he doesn't reject the possibility that Assad is behind the chemical weapons attack, "I'm only saying it's just as possible that the rebels did it." Van Aken added that the use of chemical weapons should be ostracized and prosecuted. "But for this, you need to get your hands on the truly guilty party and put them in front of a judge. And if it takes 15 years, then it takes 15 years."

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