Weapons inspectors could finally be about to begin investigating claims that the regime in Syria has used chemical munitions during the country’s bloody civil war after a deal was struck to allow them into the country.
In a statement issued yesterday, the office of Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations’ Secretary-General, confirmed that an informal agreement concluded a fortnight ago, to let inspectors visit three sites in Syria, had been formally approved by Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.
“The departure of the team is now imminent,” it said. “As agreed with the government of Syria the team will remain in the country to conduct its activities, including on-site visits, for a period of up to 14 days, extendable upon mutual consent.”
It is now expected that a team led by the Swedish scientist, Ake Sellstrom, will travel to Damascus in the coming days.
What they find may determine how other countries respond to increasingly loud demands by the opposition groups, which have pleaded with Western governments to provide them with arms. The pleas have grown ever louder, especially since the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah entered the civil war on behalf of the Syrian government earlier in the year.
Small scale assistance – such as the provision of non-lethal equipment - has already been provided by the UK and other Western countries, but there is some pressure to send weapons that would help to combat recent government gains.
In a report published in June, the UN said it had “reasonable grounds” to believe that chemical weapons had been used on four occasions in March and April but could not determine which side was behind them.
The report suggested that both sides – government troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and a number of the various rebel groups – were responsible for using chemical weapons.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used. It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator,” said Paulo Pinheiro, who chaired the UN inquiry.
The UK and France have been adamant that small amounts of chemical weapons, particularly Sarin gas, and possibly also the nerve agent, VX, have been used by Assad’s forces.
The US has, however, been reluctant to endorse the findings. Last August Barack Obama said that the use of non-conventional weapons would constitute a “red line” for the US, which was widely taken to mean that Washington would consider some degree of intervention if the use of chemical weapons could be proved.
So far, more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.