By Riad Kahwaji
The statement by Carla Del Ponte, lead investigator in the United Nations International Independent Commission of Inquiries (UNIICI), about the possible use of chemical weapons by Syrian rebels has caused great deal of concern and compelled a quick rebuff from her own organization and a subtle criticism from the U.S. administration. While most of the international community had pointed the finger at the Syrian regime, which is known to possess large caches of chemical weapons, Del Ponte’s remarks came as a shocking upset, especially when the UN has not yet been able to get a team on the ground awaiting permission by Damascus that has been stalling for weeks now. The UN has asked the Syrian regime to allow a team of international experts into the country to investigate allegations about the use of chemical weapons that were made by both the regime as well as the rebels.
Del Ponte appears to have based her conclusion on statements made by some victims of the chemical weapon attacks that occurred in parts of Syria over the past few months. “Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Del Ponte said in an interview broadcast on Swiss-Italian television on Sunday. “This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.”
Regardless of the fact that Del Ponte was quickly muted by critical statements from the United Nations and other foreign governments, her remarks do raise serious questions: If her statement is true then some Syrian rebels have got their hands on some of the regime’s chemical weapons depots, which means the international community is a bit too late in its plans to intervene to prevent the fall of these weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands. On the other hand, if her statement is not true, then Del Ponte’s allegations would impede ongoing efforts by various international actors to bring about a foreign militarily intervention to help the rebels confront and overthrow the Syrian regime. Her statements came at a time when Western governments were debating whether to supply arms to rebels and whether they should establish a no-fly zone to provide a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the northern and southern parts of the country.
Indicating that the rebels have chemical weapons suggests that they have acquired them from a outside source. because it is one thing to have people who might know how to mix a nerve agent, but it is something else to be able to weaponize it and use it on a battlefield. Building chemical weapons fired by artillery or rockets is not an easy process that can be done by an armed group or a militia with limited resources. It is a complex process that requires lots of capabilities and time to test, build and train personnel in their use. The Syrian rebels have hardly been able to acquire light and medium weapons and whatever heavy weapons they possess were captured from Syrian forces. They have built small rockets similar to the ones used by Hamas in Gaza and some primitive mortar shells. However, weaponizing artillery shells and rockets with sarin gas is not an easy process that can be done in small workshops and most likely beyond the capabilities of the Syrian rebels. It would simply be exactly as the White House spokesman put it in reaction to Del Ponte’s statement: “incredible.”
Moreover, the Syrian people have lived for decades in a police-state environment under a brutal dictatorship and thus can be easily coerced by the regime’s agents present in neighboring countries into saying things to undermine the rebels. These sarin gas victims could have families still living in areas under the Syrian regime’s control and hence would not make any remarks that condemn Damascus. So victims’ statements cannot be used as a sole source for a conclusion in such an incomplete and, thus far, weak investigation. The UN team must be on site, investigating the scene in order to reach a solid conclusion about who used chemical weapons.
Del Ponte’s remarks should be taken seriously, however, as they do assert that chemical weapons are being used in the Syrian war and some rebel groups may possess them. Hence, it does provide a strong case for a quick military intervention in Syria to prevent further escalation and the spread of a crisis that is taking dangerous dimensions with major consequences for international security. Further hesitation and delay will lead to more death and destruction, ethno-sectarian cleansing and proliferation of chemical weapons that will spill across the borders to the rest of the world.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA