August 26, 2013
By Michael Pizzi and Abdulrahman al-Masri
AMMAN: Sniper fire on Monday morning struck the convoy of a UN Chemical Weapons Team, delaying their investigation of last week’s alleged sarin gas attacks in the Damascus suburbs and feeding pessimism that the long-awaited UN investigation will prove futile.
One day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad granted investigators access to Eastern Ghouta, where an estimated 1,500 people were killed in a neurotoxic gas attack on Wednesday, an unidentified sniper fired rounds at one of their vehicles, forcing the team to head back to a government checkpoint.
Martin Nesirsky, spokesman for the UN Secretary-General’s office, confirmed details in a press release shortly after the attack. “The first vehicle of the Chemical Weapons Investigation Team was deliberately shot at multiple times by unidentified snipers in the buffer zone area [between rebel and regime territory],” his statement reads.
The spokesman added that the team would “return to the area after replacing the vehicle,” but did not specify when.
SANA, the official Syrian news agency, cited an unnamed “media source” who reported that “armed terrorist groups” had opened fire on the team after Syrian authorities “escorted them safely to the area controlled by these groups.”
“The Syrian government holds the armed terrorist groups responsible for the security and safety of the UN team members,” SANA’s source said, referring to the handover of escort duties that was supposed to take place upon entering the rebel-held town of al-Muadamiya. The source declined to offer a motive for the rebels’ actions.
Prior to the sniper attack, Captain Abdulnasser Shmair, commander of the Revolutionary Military Council of Eastern Ghouta, issued a statement vowing “the suspension of all hostilities on Monday during the International Commission’s visit.”
The Syrian government made similar assurances.
Ghouta is a suburban area with an estimated population of 1.6 million that flanks the capital city of Damascus to the south and east. The towns of Eastern Ghouta have been under rebel control for nearly a year, but activists inside say the regime has been blockading the area, causing food and medical shortages in recent months.
As the site of the most recent, and most deadly, chemical weapons attack in Syria, Ghouta, less than 10 miles from the capital, is considered the UN team’s best opportunity to detect sarin gas.
Other sites that the team intends to investigate include the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal, where 30 people were killed in a chemical attack on March 19th. But experts say that an investigation of Khan al-Assal is unlikely to be fruitful because too much time has passed since the gas was deployed.
“In the case of sarin, in an open and hot environment it’s just waiting to evaporate, which could be a very short time – hours, if not minutes” says Eliot Higgins, an expert on the Syrian arms trade who blogs under the pseudonym Brown Moses.
The nature of neurotoxic agents like sarin gas means that even if the UN team manages to safely reach Ghouta, an investigation might be too late. Higgins says that the team’s best chance will be to examine the clothing of victims, but even that will prove complicated if they have already been buried.
An anonymous UN official also told The Los Angeles Times on Monday that the Syrian government has had ample time to hide evidence of the Ghouta attack over the past five days.
“If the Syrian government had nothing to hide…it would have granted access to the UN five days ago,” the official said.
Rebel and government officials exchanged accusations for the Monday attack, with opposition sources saying that the regime had ordered the strike to prevent investigators from accessing the site.
“The regime wants to paralyze [the UN team’s] movement,” says Abu al-Fida, a 25 year-old journalist with the pro-revolution Outer Damascus Media Center in Eastern Ghouta.
“If [the regime] had killed [the investigators], it would have just accused the Free Syrian Army,” al-Fida said, adding that the FSA’s Liwa al-Islam brigade is to be responsible for the UN team’s security while in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta.
Though neither side can offer ample evidence of the other’s guilt, medical staff on the ground in Ghouta confirm that a neurotoxic agent was deployed.
French NGO Doctors Without Borders, which operates a number of field hospitals and clinics in Eastern Ghouta, reported that victims’ symptoms were consistent with the effects of a neurotoxic gas like sarin, but stopped short of placing blame on either side.
Abu Akram, a doctor who works in a field hospital in the Arbin village of Eastern Ghouta, witnessed first-hand the effects of the chemical attack on victims.
“We noticed that something had happened to their brains,” said the Damascus University-trained doctor, who abandoned his private practice due to the war. He described one instance where a victim regained consciousness and asked medical staff if he was in paradise. Other victims were asleep when the gas struck, and have no recollection of the attack when they woke up in the hospital.
Opposition activists are convinced that the Syrian army, which has previously acknowledged possessing sarin gas, carried out the attack. They cite a lack of evidence that the FSA or allied rebel groups have the required equipment for launching sarin gas.
“The rebels are not the ones killing their own people,” says Arbin resident Moawia, a 21-year-old moderate Islamist who supports the revolution. “These people are their main source of support.”
Rumors have circulated in pro-regime circles that the rebels used their highly publicized homemade “hell cannons” to fire the gas-filled shells, but Eliot Higgins says the hell cannon has too short a range and cannot accommodate shells as large as those depicted in video evidence.
“Attempts to link the hell cannon munition to this week’s attack really hold no water at all,” he says.
With additional reporting from Nuha Shabaan.