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Syria

UN faces unsolved problems in Syria

Even before the UN report on Syria was officially released, it was hard to doubt the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But many questions, including who is to blame for their use, remain unanswered.

On Friday (13.09.2013), UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon spoke of "overwhelming" evidence for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. No wonder confirmation of their use in the UN report that was so eagerly anticipated last week was no longer a top story in American media outlets.

The surprising agreement between the US and Russia in Geneva on a plan to destroy Syrian chemical weapons also took some of the suspense out of the long-awaited report by the UN inspectors. And finally, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - obviously feeling the pressure of a potential US military threat - admitted to possessing them, hardly anyone could seriously doubt that UN inspectors would confirm their use in Syria.

Ake Sellstrom (L), head of the chemical weapons team working in Syria, hands a report on the August 21, 2013 Al-Ghouta massacre to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
(Photo: Reuters / Paulo Filgueiras / UN Photo/ Handout via Reuters)

Ban received the report from Ake Sellström, left, head of the chemical weapons team working in Syria

Report does not point fingers

The report, which has now been officially handed over to the UN Security Council, indeed provides evidence of the fact that the nerve agent sarin was used on August 21 near Damascus "on a relatively large scale." The report did not provide an answer to the politically important question of whether the Assad regime or the rebels were responsible for its use. That was not the inspectors' task.

But the Middle East expert Bruce Riedel from the Washington-based think tank Brookings Institution thinks it's fairly clear. He told DW, "The report does not charge the Assad government directly, but few believe its claims that the rebels conducted the massacre."

Ban Ki Moon's phrasing was initially more diplomatic when he said that "the international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable."

Talk of serious consequences

What is notable, however, is that Ban also emphasized that Russia and the US agreed to a UN resolution that enforces the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons with military force if necessary. When the UN report was presented, Ban said that broken promises from Damascus should have consequences.

The question of force is also the main sticking point between the US and Russia. Even before the report was released, a new dispute erupted between the two negotiating parties about whether the threat of violence should necessarily be included in a UN resolution. While US Secretary of State John Kerry sees such a threat as an indispensible condition, his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov has the opposite view on the issue, seeing it as a potentially insurmountable obstacle.

For Mark Jacobson from the German Marshal Fund, it remains "imperative that any agreement for Assad to turn over his weapons include some sort of enforcement mechanism within UN channels, even if not in that particular resolution."

No comparable precedents

What happens in the next few days and weeks will hinge upon the actions of the UN Security Council. In its resolution, the council will not only have to agree on the use of military force, but will also have to grapple with seemingly impossible security problems. For Riedel, the security issue holds the potential to sabotage the UN plan: "Who will provide security for the inspectors?" he asks. "The UN cannot rely on the Syrian army; it is the guilty party in the massacre. And it cannot rely on the rebels."

The Assad regime not only has to cooperate in security questions, but also show an unaccustomed transparency, according to Jacobsen. He thinks that the information that the Geneva deal demands - a comprehensive list of the chemical weapons stockpiles and of the amount and type of weapons currently in Syria's possession - should quickly be delivered within the outlined timeframe. Apart from that, however, Jacobsen sees unsolved technical problems when it comes to the destruction of the weapons.

On Friday, Ban Ki Moon spoke of 'overwhelming' evidence for chemical weapons.

"Of course they need to get hundreds of personnel and equipment into there," he points out. There are hardly any precedents. It took more than ten years to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles in Iraq; according to US-Russian plans, the same task is to take one year in Syria. A representative of the US government has been quoted saying that the operation is difficult but possible.

Grave danger for UN inspectors?

Riedel is particularly worried about how the rebels will react. Many of them see the deal in Geneva as a victory for Assad and trust neither the US nor the United Nations. "Extremists in the rebel camp, especially the al Qaeda camp, will probably try to prevent UN inspections by force and violence. Al Qaeda regards the UN as a tool of the great powers that work against Islam," he says. Attacks on UN facilities in Bagdad and in other cities have already shown the destructive power that al Qaeda holds. Riedel is sure that al Qaeda's "Syrian franchises," such as the al-Nusra Front, have "a proven capability to attack targets in the capital and elsewhere with suicide bombings and other means."

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