Syrian ‘proof’ of rebel chemical use

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (left) meets Bashar al-Assad in DamascusSergei Ryabkov (L) gave no details of the evidence

Syria has given Russia “material evidence” that rebels carried out a chemical attack on 21 August, Russia’s deputy foreign minister has said.

Sergei Ryabkov, on a visit to Syria, said a UN report on the incident was politicised and one-sided.

The UN team found the nerve agent sarin was used in the attack in Damascus.

The US blamed government forces for the attack, which sparked diplomacy that culminated in a deal for Syria to hand over its chemical arsenal by mid-2014.

Damascus has repeatedly accused opposition forces of carrying out the assault in eastern Damascus, in which hundreds were killed.

Ake Sellstrom (centre), the head of a UN chemical weapons team in Damascus. Photo: 30 August 2013

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The UN report, by chief investigator Ake Sellstrom, did not apportion blame for the attack.

Mr Sellstrom told the BBC he believed that the task of finding and destroying Syria’s chemical stockpile would be “stressful work”, but was “doable”.

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The war of words over the use of chemical weapons in Syria – much of it aimed at saving face – was predictable.

But the fact is that Russia persuaded Syria to declare its weapons and let them be destroyed. What counts now is what actually happens, not what people say.

The first agreed deadline comes on Saturday, by which time Damascus is supposed to provide an inventory of its chemical arsenal. If that slides, doubts about its sincerity – and Moscow’s credibility – will start to grow.

Before and since the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, Syria and Russia argued publicly that the rebels had used chemical weapons, either in the 21 August attack or elsewhere. But that did not prevent Syria agreeing to disarm at Moscow’s behest.

He said much depended on whether the Syrian government and the opposition were willing to negotiate.

The disarmament deal was brokered by the US and Russia.

The penalty for any possible breaches by Syria are now being thrashed out by the UN Security Council permanent members.

Selective and incomplete

In an interview with Russian media, Mr Ryabkov said the government of President Bashar al-Assad had given him new evidence that rebel forces had used chemical weapons.

“Just now we were given evidence. We need to analyse it,” he said, without giving any details.

Mr Ryabkov criticised the UN report, saying it was “distorted” and “one-sided”.

“The basis of information upon which it is built is not sufficient, and in any case we would need to learn and know more on what happened beyond and above that incident of 21 August,” he said.

“We are disappointed, to put it mildly, about the approach taken by the UN secretariat and the UN inspectors, who prepared the report selectively and incompletely.”

In response to Mr Ryabkov’s comments, Mr Sellstrom told the BBC he thought Russia was not criticising the report itself but the process, which he described a political matter and therefore not his remit

“What I think – as I interpret it – is that there are other allegations by the Syrian government which have to be looked into,” Mr Sellstrom said.

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The Russians and the Syrians are fighting on multiple fronts at the moment in the PR war”

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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended the UN report, saying he was surprised by the Russian reaction.

“Nobody can question the objectivity of the people appointed by the UN,” he said.

Human Rights Watch said the UN document revealed details of the attack, including the trajectory of the rockets, that strongly suggest government forces carried it out.

The UN inspectors were originally mandated to go to Syria to investigate three alleged chemical weapons attacks – at Khan al-Assal, Sheikh Maqsoud and Saraqeb.

But they were later ordered to shift their focus to the Damascus incident, which was the most deadly chemical assault.

A further report on evidence from the original three attacks is due to be released in October.

Estimated range and trajectories of rockets in 21 August chemical attack
UN divided

On Tuesday the five permanent UN Security Council members met in New York to discuss a draft resolution put forward by the UK, France and the US.

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They want a resolution containing the threat of military action against Syria if it fails to comply with the disarmament deal, but Russia opposes this.

A resolution under Chapter VII of the UN charter permits military action if other measures do not succeed. Chapter VI requires a purely negotiated solution.

The BBC’s Daniel Sandford in Moscow says Russia has delivered a promise from Syria to give up its chemical weapons, and it seems that at this stage Moscow does not feel like giving the Western allies anything more.

Russia and China have three times blocked Western-backed Security Council resolutions against Mr Assad.

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Assad began in 2011.

Millions of Syrians have fled the country and millions more have been internally displaced.

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