Have Syrian rebels used chemical weapons?

A senior United Nations investigator says there’s evidence that Syrian rebel fighters may have used the deadly nerve agent sarin in combat.



The statement by Carla Del Ponte is in stark contradiction to long-standing accusations of chemical weapons use in Syria, which have predominantly been against government forces.


A powerful gas that, when inhaled, kills by crippling the nervous system, sarin is classified as a weapon of mass destruction and banned under international law.


Nikki Canning reports.


The United States, like Britain and Israel, claims evidence exists that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.


President Barack Obama cautions the information is based on preliminary intelligence assessments in which there is varying degrees of confidence, and raises certain questions.


Mr Obama, whose administration openly backs the rebels and is pushing for political change in Syria, says government forces are likely to be behind any such attacks — a claim the Syrian government rejects.


Seemingly reluctant to send troops into Syria, Mr Obama has said the use of chemical weapons would cross a so-called red line, and could give cause for a possible foreign intervention.


“It’s obviously horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed. To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law, and that is going to be a game-changer.”


But the US President remains silent on where his country would stand if Syrian rebels are found to have used chemical weapons.


Carla Del Ponte is a former Chief Prosecutor of two United Nations international criminal law tribunals.


Now a member of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Ms Del Ponte says the Commission’s investigation has produced what she calls strong, concrete suspicions — yet no incontrovertible proof — that opposition forces have used the deadly sarin gas.


This, Ms Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss television, is based on testimonies from casualties, and medical staff treating them, in neighbouring countries.


She said the evidence gathered links the use of sarin gas to rebel fighters, and not Syrian government forces.


“We have no indication at all that the government, the authority of the Syrian Government, have used chemical weapons. I was a little bit stupified that the first, the first indication we got, they were about the use of nerve gas by the opponents.”


Responding to Ms Del Ponte’s comments, the UN Commission quickly issued a statement saying it’s yet to reach any conclusive findings on chemical weapons use in Syria.


Syria’s main opposition group, for its part, rejects the allegations — directing blame towards the Syrian government.


Molham al-Droubi, of the Syrian National Council, says claims the rebels fighting to depose President Bashar al Assad have used chemical weapons are unfounded.


“There is no objective evidence of what they said. In order to have objective evidence we need to decide on the place, on the time, and we should have witnesses who are unbiased witnesses.”

The US, which is considering arming Syria’s rebels, is questioning Ms Del Ponte’s statements saying it is highly sceptical about the rebels’ use of chemical weapons.


It too maintains that any use of sarin gas is likely to have originated with the Syrian government.


State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell says the US believes Syria’s Army possesses the capacity to deploy chemical weapons.


“The concern is that the regime has huge stockpiles of these weapons and has shown an increasing willingness to use escalated violence against their people.”


A separate UN investigation into allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, instigated by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, is stalling.


Investigators are yet to enter the country, reportedly due to disagreements with the government over the limitations of the investigation.


Syria initially called for the inquiry after claims of chemical weapons attacks near Aleppo earlier this year.


It’s one of three locations where chemical weapons are alleged to have been deployed during the conflict.


Speaking to the BBC, Syria’s former ambassador to Turkey, Nidal Kabelan, said the UN should conduct an independent and unbiased investigation in Syria.


But he’s warned the Syrian government is wary of a US-led invasion, such as in Iraq, which was based on false evidence about weapons of mass destruction presented to the UN.


“Syrians have a very vivid memory of what has happened in Iraq and how the whole country was invaded, destroyed undermined, and for a few years later for Colin Powell (Secretary of State under the George W Bush administration) to come up with this testimony that what they suspected weapons trucks carrying weapons of mass destruction turned out to be milk powder or something like that.”


The Syrian conflict is now in its third year, having claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, and forced over one million people to flee.


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