UN Investigating Alleged Chemical Attacks In Syria

Aug 21, 2013
Originally published on September 10, 2013 10:05 am

Syrian activists allege that Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against rebels today, killing hundreds of civilians.

The allegations come just after United Nations chemical weapons experts arrived in the country to investigate earlier alleged uses of these weapons.

Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, explains what the UN team will be looking for and the challenges they face in determining chemical weapons use.


  • Amy Smithson, senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
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It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Robin Young.

And troubling amateur video was posted online today claiming to show a poison gas attack on rebel strongholds in the neighborhood outside Damascus, Syria. One shows people without any visible injuries screaming and pawing at their skin. Another shows medics trying to revive a room of more than 90 people, many of them children lying lifelessly on the floor.

Last year, President Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be crossing the red line that would be used to determine whether the U.S. would intervene militarily in Syria. And just Sunday, UN inspectors arrived in the country to investigate previous claims.

Amy Smithson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and the author of "Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond." And we want to get some questions to her right now. Amy, welcome.

AMY SMITHSON: It's a pleasure to be with you.

YOUNG: So this would be pretty brazen, using chemical weapons while inspectors are in the country to see if there are chemical weapons being used. What has the Assad regime said?

SMITHSON: The Assad regime has denied that it is responsible for these attacks. The accusations from the rebels are just the reverse. And it's easy to say that the timing of this interesting, to say the least.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well - but we also have to say who are we talking about when we say rebels? Because in many conversations we've had here, these are not maybe the original homegrown rebels of the uprising, but maybe been - have been replaced by members of al-Qaida.

SMITHSON: Yes. It's a very confusing picture. I don't think it's easy to categorize the opposition forces as - in a single way. But one thing that one can say about these attacks on this occasion is that they're much more widespread than previous incidents. And that the pre-dawn hour of the attack is hallmark of a military that understands that that's when the temperature is going to be cooler and the winds are going to be less, and you're more likely to have the chemicals stay where you put them and do more harm.

YOUNG: Hmm. I want to pick that up but just finish the thought that we were on, which is there has been some suspicion - well, maybe this was - and I think probably supports what the regime have said. This was maybe was an attack from rebels to make it look like the government had launched an attack. But you said attack as if you were sure it was. These videos have not been confirmed. What do you think?

SMITHSON: Well, I'm looking at a variety of reports, and this is multiple locations. And that's very distinct from the past where it looks like something has happened in one location, maybe something - one munition has dropped from the air or appeared. It's not the type of incident where since it's so widespread that one can say this is an unintentional rapture of a commercial facility that contains chemicals. This is both eastern and western suburbs of Damascus, so it looks like a military effort.

YOUNG: Yeah. So as we mentioned, there is a UN team that just arrived on Sunday in Syria. In the past, you'd spoken with the lead investigator of this UN team. Have you spoken to him at all recently? We should just check that first. Have you spoken to him about these most recent videos?

SMITHSON: No, I have not, but I have been reading the press reports like you have. And with typical Swedish understatement, he said this is something that looks like we should look into. Dr. Sellstrom is not only a former United Nation Special Commission inspector, which is where I met him when I interviewed him for my book, but he used to run Sweden's top chemical and biological defense facility. He has both the technical expertise and the field experience to get to the bottom of this if he's allowed out of the hotel.

YOUNG: Well, there's that. Well, let's put that aside for a second. How might he use - he and other investigators use this video, or are you saying that he would need to go to the place?

SMITHSON: Well, the most telltale evidence of an attack is going to be the delivery system which can be sampled for the contents. They can also take environmental samples from the locations where these rockets - and most accounts say, it is attacked by rocket - where - so that they can literally sample the ground and other areas. But they are also going to be able to take samples, quite frankly, from the victims and from those who are still ill, whether it's blood or urine samples from those who are still alive or autopsy of those who were killed in this. And that will provide some fairly definitive evidence of what type of chemical is involved.

YOUNG: Yeah. And then what, because as we said, this was the red line? I mean, just give us some context. If these actually are chemical attacks - you mentioned different places. The videos are horrifying. If, you know, put this in context. We know the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, attacked the Kurds decades ago, and thousands died. What would this attack be in that context?

SMITHSON: Well, the previous incidents looked like somebody was testing the waters, whether it was rebel forces trying to point the finger at the Syrian government - because it is widely assumed there have been multiple governments that have intelligence reports saying they've got both mustard gas and nerve agents. Or it could be, again, the Syrian government trying to see whether or not they can get away with this without an escalation and outside intervention. But it's a very...

YOUNG: But I just have to - I'm sorry, but I just have to jump in to say, while the U.N. inspectors are there? That just really boggles the mind.

SMITHSON: Well, that's the thing that befuddles me, as well, because it would be the height of hubris for the Syrian government to engage in this attack while inspectors are sitting there in Damascus. And - but, again, the hallmarks of this are of a trained military force that knows when to attack. And some of the symptoms - it's difficult to say whether or not this is classic warfare agent, because the symptoms are similar to exposure to a number of organophosphorus chemicals.

It may not matter in the end, in terms of the legalities of this, because it's against international law to use any toxic chemical for military purposes. So if it's the Syrian opposition forces who think they can pin it on the Syrian government, they may not be able to do so definitively.

YOUNG: Either way, what does this mean for the U.S. and President Obama's statement, that this would be the red line?

SMITHSON: Well, if there are literally hundreds and hundreds of people dying in this attack and the reports are anywhere from dozens to up to 1,300, not to mention the injuries on top of that, this is a very blatant violation of the red line, not just a testing of it. And hopefully, we will increase our chemical defense assistance, as will other nations.

YOUNG: And take whatever - the baby steps beyond that. We'll keep on this story. Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the author of "Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond," on reports of chemical attacks on citizens in Syria. Amy, thank you.

SMITHSON: Thank you.

YOUNG: Back in a bit. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.