HELSINKI // The report by UN inspectors on the use of chemical weapons in Syria is set to be released next week but the key question — who deployed them — will remain unanswered.
Under an agreement reached between the UN and the Syrian government, the mandate of the inspectors was to determine whether chemical weapons had been used, not by whom.
Still, the report is expected to be valuable in establishing once and for all whether chemical weapons were used in the early hours of August 21 in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Doctors Without Borders said 355 people died, all of them suffering from “neurotoxic symptoms.”
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 502, while the United States put the figure at 1,429, but has so far declined to say how it arrived at that number.
A team of UN inspectors were already in Damascus to probe previous claims of chemical-weapons use when the attack occurred.
After days of wrangling with the Syrian government for permission to visit Ghouta, the inspectors reached the site six days later to search for evidence that chemical weapons had been used, and interview survivors and doctors.
One focus of their report will be the results of hair and blood samples collected by the inspectors.
The delay in reaching the location raised concerns, especially in Washington, that evidence of a chemical attack would have degraded and provide no valid test results.
Among the tests being carried out in laboratories in Sweden and Finland is gas chromatography-mass-spectrometry, which can identify even partially decomposed chemical substances, according to Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a security consultant and former officer in the UK’s joint chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear regiment.
“The key thing is a variety of tests breaking down the samples to their constituent parts and seeing what chemical remains,” he said.
In his speech from the White House on Tuesday night, the US president, Barack Obama, said the facts pointing to the responsibility of the Assad regime for the Ghouta chemical attack “cannot be denied.”
He also said sarin gas had been used in the attack, citing US tests on hair and blood samples.
On that claim, Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons expert and former officer in the US army’s chemical corps, said he was not so sure.
But alleged victims seen in videos posted on social-media websites failed to show the telltale signs of sarin exposure, including contracted pupils and presence of bodily fluids, Mr Kaszeta said.
“I want to see actual numbers,” he said, referring to the levels of chemicals present in the evidence collected by the inspectors.
Once exposed to air and water, sarin breaks down into isopropyl methylphosphonic acid and then into methylphosphonic acid, which linger far longer. Any blood sample containing them would be a “smoking gun” for sarin, Mr Kaszeta said.
“If someone gets an actual trace of a chemical-warfare agent, a lab such as the one in Finland will not only be able to determine what it is, but it will shed an awful lot of light on ... how it’s made.”
Although their mandate, and UN protocols, limit the questions that the inspectors will address, the report is expected to put forward enough data for others — the UN general assembly, the security council and member governments — to assign blame and take appropriate action.
Laboratory tests will identify any stabilisers and dispersal agents used with the poison gas, said Dr Patricia Lewis of Chatham House, a UK think tank.
The presence of such substances would point to a level of technical sophistication outside the known abilities of the rebels opposing the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, she said.
“That would indicate that the chemicals were from government stockpiles,” she added.
But those are conclusions for others, not the inspectorsm to draw, Mr de Bretton Gordon said.
“What we will find out from the UN is what chemical was used and that’s about it. They are trying to be completely impartial and follow the letter of the mandate.”
For the US it is a foregone conclusion.