Excerpts of a report by international inspectors on Syria's chemical weapons use was leaked Thursday, and claims that the government of Bashar al-Assad was almost certainly responsible for the deaths of some 1,400 people in an August 21 chemical attack on a Syrian suburb.
The UN inspectors were sent to the country to assess the Syrian chemical weapons program, and were not expected to lay blame on any specific party for the attack. Western observers said that if the leak was accurate, it showed how overwhelmingly involved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in the attack.
“If the inspectors, who were supposed to be impartial, are blaming Assad, that says something,” a U.S. official quoted in agency news reports said.
Details of the report were published Thursday on the website of Foreign Policy magazine. According to the report, inspectors have uncovered “a 'wealth' of evidence on the use of nerve agents that points to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people,” although the report stops short of indicting him directly.
The report quotes a Western official associated with the UN team as saying that “I know they have gotten very rich samples -- biomedical and environmental -- and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses. It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got.” The official declined to give details, but said the information clearly points to Assad as being responsible for the attack.
The UN team, led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellström, had been sent to Syria to investigate the country's chemical weapons program. The attack against Syrian civilians occurred while the team was on the ground, and caused the team to quickly shift its focus.
Assad has denied using the weapons, blaming instead rebel groups, whom he calls “terrorists.” In an interview on PBS this week, Assad said that “there has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people.” A report last Sunday said that German intelligence had determined that Syrian troops may have used chemical weapons in a deadly attack last month without the permission or knowledge of President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad's assertion is backed by Russia; last week, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “the Americans tried to present us with information on the use of chemical weapons by the regime, but frankly we thought that it was not convincing.”
Russia has proposed a deal that would place Syria's chemical weapons stockpile under "international supervision,” after which they would be destroyed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to discuss the proposal Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack H. Obama put military action against Syria on hold, appearing to give Russia a chance to work out a plan.
“It's too early to tell whether [the Russian plan] will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said in a speech Wednesday night. “But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies.”