UN investigates further chemical weapons attacks inside Syria

Three cases suspected­ after regime’s strike on outskirts of Damascus on 21 August that prompted US threat of military action

United Nations inspectors are investigating seven cases involving the alleged use of chemical weapons inside Syria, including three after the attack on 21 August, it emerged yesterday, as the Security Council moved towards a vote in New York on a resolution that would require the Assad regime to give up its chemical arsenal.

The three recent incidents under investigation occurred at two sites to the east of the Syrian capital Damascus and one to the south-west, the UN said, without elaborating. The 21 August attack on the outskirts of the capital triggered the US push for action.

Next week, officials from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will begin the work of inspecting Syria’s chemical arsenal under the terms of the framework agreed between the US and Russia this month. The deal was put together to avert US military strikes.

To that end, the US and Russia also struck an agreement on Thursday over a UN Security Council resolution that would require President Bashar al-Assad’s government to eliminate its chemical stockpile. Under the draft agreed by the five permanent members of the council – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – the resolution will demand that Syria give up its chemical arsenal. It will further require Damascus to let in UN inspectors and allow them to conduct their work without any obstructions.

While the resolution will warn of consequences under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which leaves open the door to military action, the Security Council would first have to adopt a second resolution before authorising such action. Violations by Syria would, under the draft, be reported to the council by officials from the UN or the OPCW. A draft agreement on the inspections was all set to be adopted by OPCW member states in The Hague last night.

Ahead of an expected vote on the Security Council resolution on Friday evening, the Syrians portrayed the planned measure as a defeat for the US, which only weeks ago appeared headed for military action.

“The resolution does not include threats or even possibilities of misinterpretations in a way that would let America and its allies to take advantage of it as they did in Iraq,” Issam Khalil, a member of President Assad’s party, told the Associated Press in Damascus.

In New York, where the UN General Assembly is currently underway, the agreement among the five permanent members of the Security Council was portrayed as a sign of progress, with American officials welcoming it as a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, used his speech before the General Assembly yesterday to once again stress that, as far as Moscow was concerned, “all the incidents associated with the use of chemical weapons by whoever that might be in Syria must be investigated in a professional and unbiased manner.”

Also at the UN, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, signalled Tehran’s willingness to “actively” participate in any peace conference to resolve the Syrian crisis. “For Geneva or any other international gathering ... should Iran participate, it will actively accept that invitation and participate for the sake of the Syrian people,” he said on the sidelines of the General Assembly, according to a translation by the Agence-France Presse.

Over at The Hague, the OPCW was due to convene last night to approve an agreement to clear the way for the inspection and accelerated destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal. According to a leaked draft of the document that was due to be put to the OPCW’s executive council, Syria will be required to destroy all its chemical weapons production facilities by the beginning of November. It will also be required to give inspectors “immediate and unfettered access” to all chemical weapons sites.

Attention will now turn to the logistical challenges for inspectors. They must work in what remains a volatile and dangerous environment.