AMSTERDAM April 27 : Assertions of chemical weapon use in Syria by Western and Israeli officials citing photos, sporadic shelling and traces of toxins do not meet the standard of proof needed for a UN team of experts waiting to gather their own field evidence.
Weapons inspectors will only determine whether banned chemical agents were used in the two-year-old conflict if they are able to access sites and take soil, blood, urine or tissue samples and examine them in certified laboratories.
That type of evidence, needed to show definitively if banned chemicals were found, has not been presented by governments and intelligence agencies accusing Syria of using chemical weapons against insurgents.
“This is the only basis on which the OPCW would provide a formal assessment of whether chemical weapons have been used,” Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said.
With Syria blocking the UN mission, it is unlikely they will gain that type of access any time soon.
The White House and Western diplomats at the UN said they believe Syria had “probably” fired chemical munitions, but failed to name the chemical in question.
The Israeli military this week suggested Syrian forces used sarin and showed reporters pictures of a body with symptoms indicating the nerve gas was the cause of death.
Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons control, said “there is a limit to what you can extract from photograph evidence alone. What you really need is to get information from on the ground, to gather physical evidence and to talk to witnesses as well as medical staff who treated victims.”
Meanwhile, Turkey said yesterday any use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad would “take the crisis to another level”, but remained cautious about any foreign military intervention in the conflict on its border.
“We have been hearing allegations of the use of chemical weapons for quite some time now and these new findings take things to another level. They are very alarming,” Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu said.
“Since the very first reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria emerged we have been asking for a thorough investigation by the United Nations to substantiate these reports. However, the Syrian regime has not allowed this.”
Syria, which has so far denied access to UN investigators because of a dispute over their remit, denies firing chemical weapons and accuses anti-Assad rebels of using them.
“This has been done by organisations, including Al Qaeda, which threatened to use chemical weapons against Syria. They have carried out their threat near Aleppo. There were victims,” Syrian Information Minister Omran Al Zoubi said in Moscow.
The White House, which called the use of chemicals weapons in Syria a “red line” for possible military intervention, said its assessment was partly based on “physiological” samples. But a White House official speaking on condition of anonymity declined to detail the evidence. It is unclear who supplied it.
Even if samples were made available to the OPCW by those making the assertions, the organisation could not use them.
“The OPCW would never get involved in testing samples that our own inspectors don’t gather in the field, because we need to maintain chain of custody of samples from the field to the lab to ensure their integrity,” said Luhan. Established to enforce the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of toxic agents in warfare, the OPCW has exhaustive rules on how inspectors collect and handle evidence, starting with the sealing of a site like a crime scene.
Multiple samples must be taken and there need to be “blank” samples from unexposed matter and tissue, to set a baseline against which levels of contamination could be determined.
The samples would be split, sealed and flown in dark, cooled air transports to up to three certified laboratories, including one at the OPCW’s headquarters in The Hague.