One of John Kerry’s main arguments for bombing Syria is that the Assad government stalled and delayed UN weapons inspectors:
Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime, but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up. At every turn, the Syrian regime has failed to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, using it only to stall and to stymie the important effort to bring to light what happened in Damascus in the dead of night.
I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem, and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate, immediate transparency, immediate access, not shelling. Their response needed to be unrestricted and immediate access. Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.
Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systemically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide. That is not the action of a regime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons.
In fact, the regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible.
In reality, chemical weapons evidence lasts for years. As the New York Times notes:
Scientists have discovered that sarin, a deadly nerve agent, can be detected long after its use on the battlefield. In one case, forensic experts went to a Kurdish village in northern Iraq four years after Iraqi warplanes had dropped clusters of bombs there. The experts found a unique chemical signature of the lethal toxin in contaminated soil from bomb craters.
Such findings suggest that the Syrian government would have a hard time hiding evidence if it did indeed use chemical weapons against civilians in a large-scale attack last week.
“They can pinpoint chemicals long after the fact,” said Amy E. Smithson, an expert on biological and chemical weapons at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “In past investigations, the inspectors have collected incredibly useful and at times incriminating evidence.”
“They’re very good,” said David H. Moore, a toxicologist at Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit research group in Columbus, Ohio, and a former official at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. “If adequate samples are collected, there’s a high probability that they will find conclusive evidence of exposure to chemical warfare agents.”
With Syria, he added, the best evidence for chemical forensics would be blood and tissue samples from victims and survivors that display acute symptoms. Careful analysis of such samples, he said, can reveal “telltale markers.”
Dr. [Ron G. Manley, a former British military specialist and director of verification for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] said in an interview, British scientists had managed to find unambiguous signs “in blood and urine samples for up to two weeks” after a chemical attack.
In 1992, a forensic team assembled by Physicians for Human Rights, based in Boston, and Middle East Watch, a human rights group based in New York, conducted an unusual experiment to see if clear evidence could be uncovered long after a chemical attack. Its scientists went to the Kurdish village in northern Iraq that had been bombed by Iraqi warplanes four years earlier, and they sent field samples to the Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment of the British Ministry of Defense. It found trace evidence of sarin as well as mustard gas, another chemical agent.
Graham Pearson, the establishment’s director general at the time, said the detection showed that “samples collected from appropriate locations can provide evidence of the presence of chemical warfare agents over four years after the attack.”
Similarly, Agence France-Presse notes:
Traces of nerve agent would remain in victims for weeks, easily detectable if UN inspectors can examine people poisoned in last week’s suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, experts say.
Toxicology and weapons specialists said a gas like sarin or VX would still be traceable in hair and tissue from human corpses and animal carcasses, the blood of survivors, and the site where the shells carrying the supposed nerve agent exploded.
“We are still within the time zone where if there was a sarin attack, for example, we should be able to acquire blood samples that then can be analysed in a laboratory outside of Syria, and where we would know for a fact afterwards whether sarin was involved,” said disarmament consultant Ralf Trapp, formerly a scientist at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“It depends on how much freedom they (the UN inspectors) have to do what they want to do and how good their access is,” he said.
Alastair Hay, a toxicology professor at Leeds University in England and a former chemical weapons inspector, said the symptoms “point to a potent chemical warfare nerve agent like sarin”, whose victims could carry traces in their blood for up to six weeks.
French toxicology and forensic expert Pascal Kintz said there should be no technical hurdle to obtaining proof of nerve gas poisoning.
“If the UN inspectors get the correct samples, from blood, urine and fatty tissue where these things settle, and also from the victims’ clothes, there would be no problem doing this type of analysis – even with a long delay,” he said.
Inter Press Service reports:
[The United Nations spokesman] sharply disagreed with the argument made by Kerry and the State Department that it was too late to obtain evidence of the nature of the Aug. 21 incident.“Sarin can be detected for up to months after its use,” he said.
Moreover, Kerry’s statement that the Syrian government unreasonably delayed inspection is false.
The UN only delivered the inspection request Saturday. Reporter Matthew Lee obtained the following verification from UN spokesman Farhan Haq:
Matthew Lee: Can you say when, formally, legally, the request to go to al-Ghouta was made?
Farhan Haq: Well, I just read you that request, which is—
Matthew Lee: Right, which is the request.
Farhan Haq: —which is a clear request that was issued on Thursday. Angela Kane was immediately dispatched, and then she arrived in Damascus on Saturday.
Matthew Lee: Right.
Farhan Haq: So she was also stepping forward with that request. But, as you see, we made that request on the 22nd of August.
Matthew Lee: But is that the request? Press statement is the request?
Farhan Haq: It’s not just a press statement, when we make these things. As the statement makes very clear, “a formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the Government of Syria in this regard.”
Matthew Lee: And it arrived on Saturday in the form of Angela Kane? I just wanted you to respond to that.
Farhan Haq: It’s a—that’s basically a question of semantics. You heard exactly what the formal request is. It went out far and wide on Thursday. Angela Kane was conveying this, and she did arrive on Saturday.
It is well known that diplomatic requests are made when delivered … not when hinted at in a press conference.
The Syrian regime conveyed its acceptance of that request the very next day: Sunday.
After Syria agreed to a UN inspection, the U.S. has done everything it can to derail the inspection process:
After the deal was announced on Sunday, however, Kerry pushed [UN head]Ban in a phone call to call off the investigation completely.
The Wall Street Journal reported the pressure on Ban without mentioning Kerry by name. It said unnamed “U.S. officials” had told the secretary-general that it was “no longer safe for the inspectors to remain in Syria and that their mission was pointless.”
The Journal said “U.S. officials” also told the secretary-general that the United States “didn’t think the inspectors would be able to collect viable evidence due to the passage of time and damage from subsequent shelling.”
The State Department spokesperson, Marie Harf, confirmed to reporters that Kerry had spoken with Ban over the weekend. She also confirmed the gist of the U.S. position on the investigation. “We believe that it’s been too long and there’s been too much destruction of the area for the investigation to be credible,” she said.
Harf did not explain, however, how the Syrian agreement to a ceasefire and unimpeded access to the area of the alleged chemical weapons attack could represent a continuation in “shelling and destroying evidence”.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said in a press conference Tuesday that Syria had not been asked by the United Nations for access to the East Ghouta area until Kane presented it on Saturday. Syria agreed to provide access and to a ceasefire the following day.
The real reason for the Obama administration’s hostility toward the U.N. investigation appears to be the fear that the Syrian government’s decision to allow the team access to the area indicates that it knows that U.N. investigators will not find evidence of a nerve gas attack.
The administration’s effort to discredit the investigation recalls the George W. Bush administration’s rejection of the position of U.N. inspectors in 2002 and 2003 after they found no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the administration’s refusal to give inspectors more time to fully rule out the existence of an active Iraqi WMD programme.
In both cases, the administration had made up its mind to go to war and wanted no information that could contradict that policy to arise.