Damascus (AFP) – UN inspectors returned to Syria Wednesday to pursue a probe into alleged poison gas attacks, as Russia and the West wrangled over how to eliminate President Bashar al-Assad’s banned chemical weapons.
The group, led by chief expert Ake Sellstrom, flew to Beirut in Lebanon and traveled by overland convoy via the Masnaa border post to Damascus.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday demanded tough Security Council action against Syria as the conflict there dominated debate at the annual UN General Assembly.
Further complicating the situation for the international community, 13 key Syrian Islamist groups said they did not recognize any foreign-based opposition group, including the main Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition.
The groups include members of the main rebel Free Syrian Army and more radical Islamists such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.
Sellstrom’s inspectors are expected to examine the alleged use of chemical weapons some 14 times in the 30-month conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 110,000 people.
After a preliminary visit last month, his team concluded in a report presented on September 16 that banned chemical weapons had been widely used in fighting between Assad’s regime and rebel forces.
There was clear evidence that sarin gas was used in an attack in the Eastern Ghouta neighborhood near Damascus on August 21, the report said.
Sellstrom pointed out that the report was only an interim document, and that other allegations needed to be examined.
“There have been other accusations presented to the UN secretary general, dating back to March, against both sides” in the war, he told AFP earlier this month.
There were “13, 14 accusations” that “have to be investigated.”
Sellstrom said the team hoped to be able to present a final report addressing all of the accusations “possibly by the end of October.”
Last month’s attack, which the Syrian opposition and some parts of the international community blame on the regime, prompted Washington to threaten military action against Damascus.
Destruction of chemical arsenal
Assad’s government denies using chemical weapons against its own people, and has agreed to a U.S.-Russian plan that will see it deliver its chemical arsenal for destruction.
The deal headed off U.S. military action, but Damascus ally Russia is still wrangling with Britain, France and the United States over the wording of a UN resolution enshrining the accord.
Obama told world leaders Washington was ready to “use all elements of our power, including military force” to defend “core interests” such as ensuring oil supplies and eradicating weapons of mass destruction.
And he insisted international credibility was at stake after the August 21 attack that U.S. intelligence says was launched by the Damascus regime and killed more than 1,400 people, many of them children.
However, Russia is at loggerheads with U.S., French and British envoys over the draft resolution’s exact wording.
The US side wants a UN resolution which includes reference to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which sets out various measures if the agreement is violated.
Article 42 of Chapter VII threatens the use of military force, but that is not forming the basis of the draft resolution.
Obama also said the United States would provide another $340 million in humanitarian aid for the Syrian crisis, which has produced some two million refugees.
But the U.S. and its Arab allies are also providing equipment to the Syrian rebels — just as Moscow remains Damascus’s main arms supplier.
And the move by Islamist groups to break with the Western-backed National Coalition further splinters the opposition and poses a key challenge for its international supporters, analysts say.
It raises questions about how much influence the West and other rebel backers will now have on the ground, they say.
“It’s extremely damaging,” Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre told AFP.
The 13 groups “represent a very significant portion of the armed opposition and the groups that have had the most strategically valuable impact.”
Aron Lund, a Syria expert, agreed, in an analysis posted on the Syria Comment blog.
“It represents the rebellion of a large part of the ‘mainstream Free Syrian Army’ against its purported leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline forces,” he wrote.