Chemical Attack: Russia Says Wait for Results of a U.N. Probe That Won’t Say Who’s to Blame

By Patrick Goodenough | August 27, 2013 | 4:22am EDT

A U.N. team leaves its Damascus hotel on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, headed for the site of an alleged chemical attack that killed hundreds near the capital last week. (AP Photo)

( – Russia on Monday accused the West of making judgments on alleged chemical weapons use by the Assad regime before the results of a United Nations investigation are in – even through Russia is fully aware that the U.N. probe is specifically not empowered to say which side is responsible.

“Western leaders are making statements indicating that they are not going to wait for the results of the [U.N.] investigation, they have already made up their mind,” ITAR-Tass quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying in Moscow.

“Any reports about the use of chemical weapons in Syria must be investigated most thoroughly and professionally, and the results presented to the U.N. Security Council,” he told a press conference.

Lavrov said any countries that do not follow that agreement are “trying to take on the functions of both the investigators and the Security Council.”

A U.N. team that was already on the ground in Damascus when last Wednesday’s alleged chemical attack took place was permitted to visit the location on Monday, after the Syrian government – which continues to deny that it was responsible – reluctantly acceded under international pressure.

But U.S. officials have already said there is very little doubt that chemical weapons were used in the incident, and Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday afternoon accused President Bashar Assad’s regime both of using an outlawed weapon and of a cynical attempt to cover it up. Britain and France have taken a similar position and agree that the option of military action should be considered.

As President Obama ponders options in response to the crisis, his own decision to emphasize the importance of deepening U.S. engagement with the U.N. is a factor.

In an interview with CNN on Friday Obama said, “if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it.”

Evidently agreeing with that view, Lavrov warned on Monday that any military intervention without Security Council authorization would be a “most brazen violation of international law.”

Russia is a longstanding supporter of the Assad regime and has joined China three times in vetoing even relatively anodyne Security Council resolutions on Syria since the civil war began in 2011.

‘Not a criminal investigation’

Lavrov’s complaints about a rush to judgment while inspectors are still looking into the allegations comes despite the fact that the U.N. team in Syria is tasked only with establishing if chemical weapons were used – and emphatically not mandated to apportion blame.

Moscow knows this well: When the mandate was first laid out early this year the U.N. was responding to a Syrian government allegation of chemical weapons use by opposition rebels – and at the time Russia complained vocally about this limitation.

Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin, speaking to reporters in New York on March 25, 2013, complained that a U.N. team planning to investigate alleged chemical weapons use in Syria would not be mandated to find out who was responsible. (Screenshot: U.N. Webcast)

“We are somewhat perplexed that, we understand that at this point as they discuss the mandate for the expert mission, the [U.N.] secretariat seems to be reluctant to include in that mandate the identification of those who actually used that chemical weapon,” Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin told reporters in New York on March 25.

“This is something that definitely should be one of the tasks of this expert group,” he stressed.

But U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, stressed that this would not be the case.

“It is not the role of this mission to apportion responsibility or blame,” U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told a briefing the following day. “It is not a criminal investigation, it is looking at whether chemical weapons were used and not by whom.”

Although it was the Assad regime that invited the U.N. to send the team in the first place, it stalled on the “modalities” for the mission for months.

The team’s head, Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom voiced confidence in a U.N. Radio interview on March 27 that the mission would begin in “a matter of days.” In the end, after months of drawn-out negotiations, the 20-person team only arrived in the Syrian capital on August 18 – three days before the alleged chemical weapons attack just a few miles from their five-star Damascus hotel.

The team was restricted to investigate three specific alleged instances of chemical weapons use – a March 19 attack in a village called Khan al-Assal near Aleppo, and two other locations that were not disclosed.

The Khan al-Assal incident, which the regime blames on the rebels, was the original one that prompted it to invite the U.N. to visit. For its part the opposition accuses the regime of carrying out that attack, which reportedly killed at least 30 people. Britain and France also asked for a U.N. investigation into two other alleged attacks.

At the time, Russia was not averse to its own rush to judgment on attributing blame.

“We believe that the allegation which was made by the Syrian government [i.e. blaming the rebels] was the only credible allegation of the use of chemical weapons in the course of the crisis,” Churkin said in his remarks on March 25.

“We have to take into account the fact that some countries have experience in manufacturing all sorts of insinuations about the use of weapons of mass destruction,” he added, in a thinly-veiled reference to the Iraq war. “We do have to reckon with that, as various political goals are pursued.”

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention outlaws the “production, stockpiling and use” of chemical weapons, and mandates their destruction. Syria is one of just five countries yet to sign it. (The others are North Korea, Egypt, Angola and South Sudan.)

According to the U.N., any expert probe into the alleged use of a chemical or biological weapon is based on what’s known as the “secretary-general’s mechanism,” which in turn arises from a 1988 Security Council resolution.

The resolution “encourages the secretary-general to carry out promptly investigations in response to allegations brought to his attention by any Member State concerning the possible use of chemical and bacteriological (biological) weapons … in order to ascertain the facts of the matter, and to report the results.”

It says nothing either way about whether the “facts” to be ascertained should include attribution of blame.

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