by William M. Reilly
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 16 (Xinhua) -- The highly anticipated UN report confirming the use of chemical weapons in Syria on Aug. 21 killing hundreds of people is only five pages long but has unleashed uncountable words of argument.
The report itself was never intended to point fingers, only to determine if chemical weapons were used. Now the debate is in high pitch, with each side citing aspects of the report that buttresses their argument. The divide is classically East-West.
In commissioning the report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon turned to Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist, to lead a team of experts into Syria to visit sites where such munitions were alleged to have been used on three occasions.
Both the government and its opposition claimed it was the other who used deadly chemical weapons during the 2.5-year-old civil war.
UN: REPORT GRIM BUT NECESSARY
"Today marks a grim but necessary step in the world's efforts to combat chemical weapons," Ban told reporters after he briefed the UN Security Council. "Chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus on Aug.21 causing numerous casualties, particularly among civilians."
"The (UN) mission has provided the world with an impartial and independent account," Ban said. "The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale. This is a war crime and grave violation of the 1925 protocol and other rules of customary international law."
"It is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since (former Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988 and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century," he said.
The investigators already were in Syria with the assignment of examining three sites, including the Mar. 19 Khan al Asal attack, where chemical weapons were alleged to have been used when they were reordered to Ghouta because of the scope of the Aug. 21 attack.
Reports ranged from hundreds of deaths to 1,400 killed including civilians, particularly women and children. However, on the first day out to investigate, the lead vehicle was hit by unknown sniper fire and the team retreated. No one was hurt.
Eventually it reached Ghouta near Damascus without further such harassment and interviewed; it took blood, hair, soil and environmental samples; it retrieved remnants of rockets the panel now says was used to deliver sarin gas. However, trajectories of the delivery vehicles that were plotted were not consistent. There was hope they could be an indicator of who fired them.
The Russians had already produced a 100-page report on the Mar. 19 Khan al Asal site saying it found evidence indicating rebels could have concocted the deadly chemical weapons.
Others, mainly Britain, France and the United States, questioned the reliability of the report.
It was because of that disagreement the inquiry into the three attacks was originally commissioned by the United Nations. The team will revisit Syria to complete that assignment.
WEST VS. SYRIA SUPPORTERS IN REPORT MEANING
After the Security Council session behind closed doors Monday, Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant of Britain found the report pointed to the government of President Bashar Assad.
He was followed in kind by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power.
"Based on our preliminary review," the American diplomat noted, the 122-millimeter rockets used on Aug. 21 were related to those of "previous regime attacks. We have reviewed thousands of open source videos related to the current conflict in Syria and have not observed the opposition manufacturing or using this style of rocket."
The Washington envoy underscored a remark by Lyall Grant who had said the report found the quality of the Sarin gas was higher than that used in Saddam Hussein's program.
"Sellstrom also stated that the weapons obtained on the site .. were professionally made, they bore none of the characteristics of improvised weapons," said Power. "It is very important to note that the regime possesses Sarin and we have no evidence that the opposition possess Sarin."
She said Assad's troops prepared for the Aug. 21 attack.
"They distributed gas masks to regime troops, they fired rockets from a regime controlled area into 12 neighborhoods that the regime had been trying to clear of opposition forces," she said. "It defies logic to think the opposition would have infiltrated the (Assad) regime-filled area to fire on opposition- controlled areas."
RUSSIA: REPORT NO SURPRISE
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, condemning "all cases of the use of chemical weapons in Syria," said the report "did not come as a surprise."
"But, now I think some colleagues jumped to conclusions when they were saying that the Sellstrom report definitively reports that it was the government forces that used the chemical weapons," he said. "It has to be studied very carefully."
"I think statements to the effect that the opposition could not have done certain things, I think they are not really as grounded in reality as the actual situation could be," Churkin said.
"You know, we have this scenario where chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21 by government forces," he said. "They are fighting with opposition armed groups. They fire a number of rockets with chemical weapons, trying to get to those opposition groups and there are no causalities in the opposition groups," he said. " There have been no reports of causalities by the opposition groups among the actual fighters, are there?"
"On March 19th the Syrian government reported 1,026 people killed, 16 were from the Syrian military so is it theoretically possible to fire 5 or 6 rockets against your opponent and have all of them miss the target?" Churkin asked rhetorically.
"So, all of those questions are there and they need to be addressed very seriously and professionally," he said.