UN Inspectors to Syria | Charles Duelfer

UN Inspectors to Syria

Many comparisons are being made between the Syrian and Iraqi circumstances regarding CW use.
Some background on the Iraqi case. The UN first became involved in Iraqi CW use allegations during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s. A small team of experts was constituted by the Secretary General to determine if CW had been used and by whom. They made separate investigations in 1984, 1986, and 1987. Most of their investigations were done outside the battle area (only in 1987 did they go into Iraq). Nevertheless, it was concluded that extensive CW use had occurred and was increasing. This was largely determined from the injuries–many were victims of blister agent (mustard) in addition to the nerve agent sarin. It was subsequently during the UNSCOM investigations of the 1990’s that Iraq used 101,000 chemical munitions against Iran. This was a massive military use–and it was very effective in countering the Iranian “human wave” attacks. By comparison with this use, the Syrian cases are minute–and they will consequently be far more difficult to investigate.
It is worth keeping in mind, that the use of CW in the Syrian case is quite different from the Iraq use against Iranian troops. The Iraqis had a military rationale. In Syria, the rationale for use–no matter who used them–doesn’t seem to be military, but to sow terror or cause international opprobrium.

The man selected to lead the UN investigation for the Secretary General, Dr. Ake Sellstrom, is a talented scientist who has strong experience–including as a weapons inspector in Iraq. He knows the difficulties in collecting data and credibly interpreting it for politicians who may seek to dispute any conclusions. It is important that there be at least one actor in this drama with an interest in establishing the truth. However, his task is going to be challenging if not impossible–even if he is permitted into Syria.

Sellstrom will have to provide his conclusions to an audience made up of political scientists for whom truth is a variable. I recall UN Security Council ambassadors twisted and coloring seemingly factual statements into shapes that suite their ends. Sergey Lavrov was brilliant at this. A redline in his hands would quickly become a flexcuff to bind the American ambassador to his/her chair. They didn’t stand a chance.

Other ambassadors could turn a seemingly direct linear presentation into a Calder mobile or a mobius strip. The Syrian situation is not one where the parties have a common interest in truth at this point. The politics needs to be fixed first. No matter how talented the UN inspectors, their truth will waste its sweetness upon the desert air.

Bearing in mind that the Syrian crisis is only about Syria for the Syrians. For all other parties, its about Iran, Jordan, Hezbollah, Israel, etc. The dynamics are far too complex for party to understand the knock-on consequences of any act. We don’t understand the range of dynamics, nor the perimeter of the problem we are trying to solve. It is a systemic flaw of our democracy and position as the leading power, that we are supposed to have a view on how to fix every problem on earth. At the daily noon press briefing at the White House all questions get raised–of course including Syrian. “Can you tell us what the President is going to do to solve the Syrian calamity?” Imagine the press spokesman say, “Nothing. Its too complicated. It is impossible to map the consequences of any action, so we are going to do nothing.” That sort of honesty has little survival value in Washington.

It is clear that whatever the US does decide to do, it can not avoid coordinating with Russia. Kerry seems to be engaged in that. That is a good thing, though I bet it is unpleasant. Lavrov will be extremely difficult. He will remember being trampled in the UN Security Council during the Kosovo crisis by Madeleine Albright. The US gave short shrift to Russia and I strongly suspect Lavrov and others will, all other things being equal, be happy to jerk around the US. Still, unless there is some common ground mapped out between US and Russia, Syria and the region will continue a death spiral. Jordon is becoming more precarious. Lebanon stability is suffering.

Against these major dynamics, the issue CW use is important but not necessarily paramount. Only if there is a loss of control of CW will the regional powers and the US and Russia being drawn together quickly. If CW stocks look to be issued and deployed or shared in ways where the central government has no control, then the CW aspect of this disaster will become a dominant factor. Until that point is reached, the work of Dr. Sellstrom may be interesting but critical. And if the use is so small, the truth will be fungible and easily confused. A key question, if CW was used, is who used it? Was it the Syrian government forces? Confusion is already added by the statement of another part of the UN. Comments from Carla del Ponte of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry in Syria suggesting the source of Sarin use was Syrian opposition forces.

Dr. Sellstrom, I admire your courage and wish you and your team the best in your search for truth.

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