Diplomats call for investigation of reported chemical attack outside Damascus

The international community is calling for an investigation of Syrian rebels’ claims that the regime killed hundreds of people with chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus this week. If true, the allegations point to a major escalation in the country’s civil war, which is already more than two years old.

Russia asked both sides to allow U.N. investigators access to the site of the suspected attack:

The public statement by Russia, Syria’s most stalwart ally, could add considerable weight to international calls to determine exactly what happened in the Damascus suburbs this week to cause the death of scores — perhaps hundreds — of civilians.

But activists inside Syria say they hold out little hope that the U.N. team — which arrived in Syria after months of negotiates, to investigate earlier, smaller attacks — will be allowed into the eastern suburbs of Damascus where the more recent attack allegedly took place.

As a result, activists said, they are working to smuggle skin, hair and blood samples to inspectors in an effort to prove their claims.

On Wednesday, an effort by members of the U.N. Security Council to demand an investigation was stymied, in part, by Russian resistance. But Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry spoke by phone Thursday and agreed that it is a matter of “general interest” to conduct an impartial investigation into the allegations.

“Immediately upon receipt of relevant information, the Russian side called on the government of Syria to cooperate with the U.N. chemical experts,” the Foreign Ministry statement said. “The task now for the opposition is to provide secure access to the proposed site of the incident.”

The statement also said Russia is seeking “constructive progress from the opposition in regard to the early convening of an international conference on the political settlement of the Syrian crisis.”

Loveday Morris and Philip Rucker

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent an envoy to Damascus with the goal of negotiating access to the site. U.N. inspectors are already in Syria:

The Syrian government agreed to allow U.N. inspectors to visit three of the 13 sites where the United States and others said earlier attacks had occurred. Syria denied any chemical weapons use and, along with principal backer Russia, said that the opposition was responsible for at least one of the incidents, a suggestion that Russia repeated after the latest chemical attack allegations.

“There is a U.N. chemical weapons investigative team on the ground in Syria right now,” said Earnest, the White House spokesman. “You have an Assad regime that denies responsibility for the use of these chemical weapons. The easiest way for them to demonstrate that they are on the side of the international community in opposition to the use of chemical weapons is to allow this U.N. team full access to the site to try to get to the bottom of what happened.”

Germany’s Angela Kane, who is the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs and who has been dispatched to Damascus, will join Swedish disarmament expert Ake Sellstrom, the head of the investigative team, in pressing for access to the eastern ­Damascus suburbs where entire families were allegedly killed in their sleep or as they ran through the streets to escape the poison.

Fighting and government bombardment continue in the area, and Deputy U.N. Secretary General Jan Eliasson said that “there is a requirement of consent in situations like this. . . . It is a very dramatic situation, and the security situation right now does not allow such access” for inspectors.

Karen DeYoung and Colum Lynch

President Obama told CNN in an interview that aired this morning that the apparent chemical attack is an “event of grave concern,” but he also emphasized that his administration would consider U.S. interests carefully before intervening militarily. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday that the international community would have to use military force against the Syrian regime if the opposition’s claims are substantiated, a view echoed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other U.S. politicians.

Compelling, and sometimes horrific, images have circulated online of corpses without visible wounds and people with what appear to be symptoms of exposure to some kind of toxic agent. Max Fisher writes that of the many videos and photos of the incident, one in particular is worth seeing:

The video, allegedly taken just a few hours after the chemical weapons incident, shows a health worker attempting to comfort a young girl who’d purportedly survived the attack and is clearly in hysterics. It’s not clear whether her behavior is a result of chemical exposure, as some speculate, or of simple terror. She says only, over and over, “I’m alive, I’m alive.”

There’s no blood or death here; this girl’s experience does not reveal the extent of Tuesday’s loss of life or necessarily show us the symptoms of chemical weapons exposure. What it does show is an experience much more common in Syria, of surviving. For all the people who are killing and dying in the country, it’s easy to forget that most Syrians are doing neither but, like both the little girl and the health worker in this video, trying to endure the suffering around them.

Images of dead bodies and convulsing chemical weapons victims represent an important part of what’s happening in Syria, but for many outside observers , they can be so shocking as to alienate. Anyone can recognize and understand a frightened child.

Max Fisher

More than 1 million children have fled Syria as refugees, according to the United Nations:

The grim milestone announced Friday by U.N. officials means as many Syrian children have been uprooted from their homes or families as the number of children who live in Wales, or in Boston and Los Angeles combined, said Antonio Guterres, head of the Office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Can you imagine Wales without children? Can you imagine Boston and Los Angeles without children?” Guterres told reporters in Geneva.

Roughly half of all the nearly 2 million registered refugees from Syria are children and 740,000 of those are under the age of 11, according to the U.N. refugee and children’s agencies.

Guterres said the horrors of war experienced by these children puts them in grave danger of becoming a “lost generation.” With emotion he recounted some of his personal visits with Syrian child refugees, including seeing one compulsively shoot a toy gun and others who drew pictures of dead children, planes with bombs and destroyed homes.

Associated Press

For more on the civil war in Syria, continue reading at WorldViews.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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