26 Aug 2013

Syria: UN begins search for chemical attack evidence

As UN experts inspect the site of suspected chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the international community talks tough about the possibility of military intervention over the “outrage”.

UN chemical weapons experts were finally granted access on Monday to the site of the alleged attacks on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

As the inspectors began their meticulous work in Syria, testing victims and taking samples, thunderous rhetoric from across the globe seemed to suggest that regardless of what their evidence shows, it is now no longer a question of if the international community will intervene in Syria – but when.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has cut short his holiday to chair a crisis meeting amid calls that parliament would need to approve any show of force. At the same time, Russia warned that any intervention without approval from the UN Security Council would be illegal.

Read more from International Editor Lindsey Hilsum: Western capitals poised to intervene on Syria - but how? 

Around 300 people are believed to have died in the attacks last week near Damascus, which appear to show all the hallmarks of a chemical strike.

UN inspectors visited the site in the hope of finding conclusive proof that chemical weapons were used, although Britain and the US have cautioned that the chances of finding clearcut evidence are small as a result in the delay before gaining access to the site.

Channel 4 News spoke to Dr Abu Omar, a doctor at the field hospital visited by the UN inspectors who were taken to see 20 patients aged up to 50 with moderate and extreme symptoms following exposure to the gas attacks.

We wish that the inspectors tell the world the whole world the truth about Assad forces and Assad’s attack. Dr Abu Omar, who works at the hospital visited by the UN inspectors

The inspectors took samples from trees and apartments near the suspected missile attacks, and afterwards Dr Omar showed the inspectors one of the missiles but they failed to remove it.

Shelling in the area, which locals said has been non-stop for months, ended while the inspectors were there but later resumed. “We are under huge shelling now,” said Dr Omar afterwards. “A large number of bombs hit Muadhamiya, and a large number of missiles.”

He added: “We wish that the…inspectors tell the world the whole world the truth about Assad forces and Assad’s attack, Assad’s chemical attack on his people.”

Earlier, the UN convoy came under fire on the way to the attack sites. The Syrian government blamed rebel gunmen for the attack, which damaged the lead vehicle in the convoy. No casualties were reported.

The UN is to complain to the Syrian government and rebels following the incident.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said he would ask the inspection team in Damascus to register “a strong complaint” so it never happened again.

Is the UK gearing up for military action?

In the past, US President Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line”, and he has been speaking with David Cameron as well as other leaders about what the international response should be. There are reports that US naval forces are being repositioned in the region to give the US military options.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said this morning that Britain may take military action against Syria without a UN resolution and reiterated that President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for chemical attacks which killed hundreds of people, saying there was “no other plausible explanation”.

Mr Hague said a UK response to the attacks could be justified by “great humanitarian need and distress”, but said that any action “will be in accordance with international law” and will be based on legal advice given to the national security council and the cabinet.

Failure awaits the United States. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

“Is it possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the UN Security Council? I would argue yes it is, otherwise it might be impossible to respond to such outrages, such crimes, and I don’t think that’s an acceptable situation,” he said.

“We, the United States, many other countries including France, are clear that we can’t allow the idea in the 21st century that chemical weapons can be used with impunity,” he said.

Opposition from China and Russia

Opposition from China and Russia means that a UN resolution in favour of military action against President Assad remains unlikely.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said China supported the UN’s independent investigation into the alleged chemical attacks, and said China opposed the use of chemical weapons “no matter who uses them”.

Read more: what are the military options in Syria?

But Syria’s Assad has dismissed claims that he carried out chemical attacks as “entirely political”, in an interview with Russia’s Izvestia newspaper.

“Would any state use chemicals or any other weapons of mass destruction in a place where its own forces are concentrated? That would go against elementary logic,” he said.

“Failure awaits the United States as in all previous wars it has unleashed, starting with Vietnam and up to the present day.”