“The validity of any information cannot be ensured without convincing evidence of the chain of custody,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cautioned after the White House disclosed plans to arm Syria’s rebels. “That is why I continue to emphasize the need for an investigation on the ground in Syria that can collect its own samples and establish the facts.”
But even if inspectors are allowed in, the passage of time since the alleged attacks would make their task even more difficult, as sarin degrades quickly after exposure to air and sunlight, weapons experts say.
Violence flared in Aleppo and Damascus on Thursday, as pro-government troops went on offense against rebels.
A look at the Syrian uprising nearly two years later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.
Jean Pascal Zanders, who until recently was a research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said he has scoured the Internet for photographs, video and news reports documenting alleged nerve agent attacks in Syria. What he has seen has made him a skeptic.
Few of the photographs, Zanders said, have borne the trademark symptoms of a chemical weapons attack. In a paper he presented last week to the E.U. Non-Proliferation Consortium, he compared photographs documenting Iraq’s 1998 chemical weapons attack against Kurds in the town of Halabja.
The Halabja victims appeared to have died instantaneously from chemical agents, he said, and their bodies showed telltale signs of exposure to sarin: blue lips and fingertips caused by suffocation and a pink hue brought on by excessive sweating and high blood pressure. “No press reports from Syria refer to those descriptions, which is one of the reasons why I am skeptical about those reports,” he said.
Zanders said the problem with the U.S., British and French evidence is that it cannot be tested by independent scientists. Some of the published reports of chemical weapons use “make certain alarm bells ring,” he said, but it is impossible to reach a definitive conclusion on the basis of what governments have put forward. “We don’t have the barest of information. There is not even a fact sheet documenting the samples,” he said. “This is an immensely political process, and there is no way of challenging the findings.”
Other weapons experts were prepared to accept that sarin was used but said the allegation that the Syrian government has deliberately used toxins against its own people appeared to based on circumstantial evidence.
“There are so many people who would like us to believe that the regime used chemical weapons,” said a former senior U.S. official who had been involved in intelligence assessments of claims about weapons of mass destruction. “You have to question whether any of those advocates were involved in collecting the evidence.”
Warrick reported from Washington.