August 31, 2013

UN Syria weapons inspectors returning from Syria

The Associated Press

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — U.N. chemical weapons inspectors are believed to have arrived in the Netherlands, where samples they collected in Syria are expected to be repackaged and sent to laboratories around Europe. The goal will be to check them for traces of poison gas that may have been unleashed in an Aug. 21 bombardment of a Damascus suburb.

The inspectors earlier left Syria and flew out of Lebanon early Saturday. An aircraft believed to have been chartered by the German government landed in Rotterdam on Saturday afternoon.

The team on Friday carried out a fourth and final day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in the Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

Tests on the samples are expected to take days, but U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane is to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Saturday on the investigation.

President Barack Obama said he is weighing "limited and narrow" action against the Syrian regime his administration blames for the attack.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Obama not to rush into a decision. The Russian leader said he was convinced the attack was a provocation carried out by those who want to draw the U.S. into the conflict, but that Washington should show any evidence to the contrary to the United Nations inspectors and the U.N. Security Council.

"If there is evidence it should be presented," Putin said. "If it is not presented, that means it does not exist."

Russia is one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's staunchest allies. Putin's comments were his first on the crisis since the suspected chemical weapons attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21.

The U.N. inspectors spent three days this week touring stricken areas near Damascus and a fourth day interviewing patients at a government-run military hospital. They wrapped up their investigation Friday and left Syria on Saturday, via Lebanon.

The experts took blood and urine samples from victims as well as soil samples from the affected areas for examination in laboratories in Europe. The U.N. has said it will try to expedite its final report. U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane is to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Saturday on the investigation.

With the inspectors now out of Syria, the looming confrontation between the U.S. and Assad's regime moves one step closer to coming to a head. Most observers viewed U.S. military action as unlikely while the U.N. team was still inside Syria, but the Obama administration has made clear that it is confident in its assessment and could act before the U.N. releases the results of its probe.

Obama has said that if he opts for a military strike, any operation would be limited in scope and only aimed at punishing Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

But U.S. action carries the potential to trigger retaliation by the Syrian regime or its proxies against U.S. allies in the region, such as Jordan, Turkey and Israel. That would be a dangerous new turn for the Syrian civil war, which has already killed more than 100,000 people, forced nearly 2 million to flee and inflamed tensions across the Middle East.

While Obama long has been wary of U.S. military involvement in the conflict, the administration on Friday forcefully made its case for action. It accused the Assad regime of carrying out what it says was a chemical attack on Aug. 21 that killed at least 1,429 people – far more than previous estimates – including more than 400 children.

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