US Urges Syria to Let UN Team Visit Site of Alleged Chemical Attack

By Patrick Goodenough | August 21, 2013 | 7:15 PM EDT

In this citizen journalism image provided by the Media Office Of Douma City, authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Syrian man mourns over a dead body after an alleged poisonous gas attack in Douma town, Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Media Office Of Douma City)

( – If the Syrian regime – which is stridently denying claims it carried out a deadly chemical weapons attack – has nothing to hide, it will allow United Nations investigators currently in Damascus immediate access to the site of the alleged incident, the White House said Wednesday.

The anti-Assad opposition accused the government of using toxic gas in the eastern suburbs of the capital, killing hundreds of people. Video clips posted online showed rows of bodies and scenes of young children struggling to breathe.

A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement via the official SANA news agency that claims were “false and untrue,” adding that “Syria has repeatedly announced that it will never use any weapons of mass destruction against its own people, if such weapons exist.”

An army general command spokesman called the allegations “part of the dirty media warfare on Syria,” saying they reflected the “hysteria, disorder and breakdown” of the “terrorist gangs and the channels that support them.”

Why the regime would choose to use chemical weapons just three days after a U.N. team arrived in the city to investigate earlier claims of such use is baffling. Both sides in the civil war have accused the other of using chemical weapons, which are banned under international convention.

The latest claims come almost exactly one year to the day since President Obama said the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would be “a red line.”

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” he told reporters on August 20, 2012. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Syrian National Coalition deputy leader George Sabra suggested the regime was openly defying the international community.

“The Syrian regime is mocking the U.N. and the great powers when it strikes targets near Damascus, while the [U.N. investigators] are just a few steps away,” he told reporters in Istanbul.

A U.N. team investigating earlier cases of alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria are at a Damascus hotel (B) just 20 minutes’ drive from the location of the alleged attack (A), but cannot visit without the regime’s permission. (Image: Google Maps)

The 20-person team now in Damascus is based at a hotel in the city just 20 minutes’ drive from the location of the alleged attack – yet under the terms of the agreement between the U.N. and Syrian government their investigation is limited to three specific sites.

They are a village near Aleppo in the north and two other locations which have not been made public, supposedly for security reasons.

Against that background U.N. Security Council permanent members the United States, Britain and France are pressing for the authorities to grant the inspectors access to the site.

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the U.N. team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.

“For the U.N.’s efforts to be credible, they must have immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals, and have the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian government.”

‘Moral imperative’

The Security Council was holding an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the claims.

Before the meeting began U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said on her Twitter account, “Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.”

Russia, historically an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has already said the attack looks like “planned provocation,” and is expected to defend the regime during the behind closed doors council session.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said during a briefing that “there should be no country that stands by or accepts the credible use or the potential credible use of chemical weapons.”

“And every country should be supporting the effort by the U.N. investigative team to go in and look at as many cases as they can possibly look at,” she added. “We believe there’s a moral imperative to allow that to happen.”

Asked whether she was referring to Russia, Psaki said, “I’ll leave you to your own conclusions.”

Last June, the White House said  intelligence agencies assessed that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, including sarin, against the opposition multiple times in the last year, and estimated that 100 to 150 people had died as a result.

“Any future action we take will be consistent with our national interest, and must advance our objectives,” deputy national security advisor for strategic communications Ben Rhodes said at the time.

Asked Wednesday about the “red line” question, Psaki replied, “clearly, when we announced a couple of months ago that that had been crossed, we made announcements about an expansion of the scale and scope of aid and also reiterated the fact that additional assistance, additional – all options remained on the table. That discussion is ongoing.”

The Assad regime has long been suspected of having stockpiles of sarin, a tasteless, odorless nerve agent that can be used as a chemical weapon.

Experts say exposure to even a small amount can be fatal within minutes. When a religious cult released sarin on a Tokyo subway in 1995, 12 people died and thousands suffered from gas inhalation.

According to the Center for Disease Control, “[t]reatment consists of removing sarin from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care in a hospital setting.”

“If people think they may have been exposed, they should remove their clothing, rapidly wash their entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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