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Dispatches: Yes, it was Sarin, UN Report Says. Now What?
September 16, 2013

The UN experts’ report on the August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria has few surprises for those of us who have been investigating that deadly attack.

The UN experts collected “clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiya, and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.”

The experts’ mandate does not allow them to say who was responsible for the deadly barrage.  But if you read between the lines, it isn’t difficult to figure it out.

The rocket systems identified by the UN as used in the attack – truck-launched 330mm rockets with around 50 to 60 liters of Sarin, as well as 140mm Soviet-produced rockets carrying a smaller Sarin-filled warhead – are both known to be in the arsenal of the Syrian armed forces. They have never been seen in rebel hands. The amount of Sarin used in the attack – hundreds of kilograms, according to Human Rights Watch’s calculations – also indicates government responsibility for the attack, as opposition forces have never been known to be in possession of such significant amounts of Sarin.

The various theories claiming to have “evidence” that opposition forces were responsible for the attack lack credibility. This was not an accidental explosion caused by opposition fighters who mishandled chemical weapons, as claimed by some commentators online. The attacks took place at two sites 16 kilometres apart, and involved incoming rockets, not on-the-ground explosions. This was not a chemical attack cooked up by opposition forces in some underground kitchen. It was a sophisticated attack involving military-grade Sarin.

So what next? The US-Russia plan to dispose of Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons must be given a chance. But that requires a robust and independent monitoring and verification mechanism, and enforceable deadlines. Until just a few days ago, the Syrian government denied it even had a chemical weapons program, and it is surely counting on Russia to shield it from meaningful enforcement.

But the US-Russia chemical weapons deal alone will not resolve Syria’s crisis. Many more Syrians have been killed in indiscriminate attacks using air-dropped bombs, cluster bombs, incendiary bombs, and ballistic missiles, not to mention countless massacres and summary executions. The focus must be on stopping the indiscriminate killings in Syria – including the rising level of unlawful killings by opposition forces – rather than on chemical weapons alone.

One immediate step is for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in response to the report: “The international community has a moral responsibility to hold accountable those responsible and for ensuring that chemical weapons can never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.”

The numerous children killed in the attack, many still in their pyjamas when the night-time attack took place, cry out for justice. A referral to the International Criminal Court would also pressure all sides to protect civilians from both chemical and conventional attacks.