NEW YORK – The UN investigative team’s report on Syria’s chemical weapons confirmed on Monday that such an attack took place “on a relatively large scale” on August 21 in the al- Ghouta area of Damascus but refrained from blaming any of the sides in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Dr. Åke Sellström presented the report to UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-Moon over the weekend, and Ban presented the report on Monday to the UN Security Council.
The report details the 52 interviews with survivors and health-care workers and the 30 environmental and biological samples the investigative team collected. The team examined impacted and exploded surface- to-surface rockets and rocket impact sites, all of which were found to contain sarin gas. Sarin was also found in 85 percent of the blood and urine samples taken from survivors.
The report said that weather conditions on the ground on August 21 helped to heighten the devastation of the attack, as falling temperatures ensured that air was “not moving from the ground upwards, but rather the opposite,” and the chemical weapons’ effect would be maximized “as the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and penetrate lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter.”
The UN report confirmed that most of the victims and survivors were civilians, particularly children.
In his remarks to reporters, with Sellström by his side, Ban called the attack a “war crime and grave violation of the 1925 Protocol” on chemical weapons, the “most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja [Iraq] in 1988, and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century.”
“The international community has a responsibility to ensure the chemical weapons will never be used again as an instrument of warfare,” Ban said.
British, French and US envoys told reporters the UN report left no doubt that Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical attack.
Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin countered that there was no scientific proof government forces were responsible for the sarin attack.
"We need to not jump to any conclusions,” Churkin said.
British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the rocket samples examined had a payload of 350 liters, which was 35 times the amount used in the Tokyo subway attack in 1995.
“In response to a question Mr Sellstrom confirmed that the quality of the sarin was superior both to that used in the Tokyo subway but also to that used by Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war,” he told reporters.
“This does not point to a cottage industry chemical,” said Lyall Grant, taking a swipe at earlier comments by Churkin.
Churkin said in July that a Moscow analysis found “cottage industry” quality sarin gas was used in an alleged March 19 attack, which he blamed on the rebels.
Ban said he welcomed the agreement reached over the weekend by Russian and US diplomats for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, and he called the accession of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention a “welcome development.”
“I urge the security council to act urgently and ensure enforcement and compliance with this plan,” Ban said.
Ban once again refused to speculate on who the perpetrators might be, saying merely that “those responsible should be brought to justice as soon as possible.”
The same investigative team is due to return to Syria “as soon as possible,” Ban said, to evaluate alleged attacks at Khan al-Asal and several other sites.
Their return is pending approval from the Syrian government.
The president of the security council, Gary Quinlan of Australia, called the report a “clear conclusion” and said what was required was “urgent action taken through the [security] council.”
“The council is unified in its condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and anytime,” he said.
Quinlan said the council welcomed the joint American-Russian decision to establish a mechanism to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, and that there would be a forthcoming security council resolution to assist in that process.
Reuters contributed to this report.