Briefing on Attacks in Syria
Council members will meet in consultations this afternoon (21 August) to receive a briefing from Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson on today’s attacks on rebel-held areas near Damascus. It seems that France, Luxembourg, Republic of Korea, UK and US requested this meeting. At press time Council members were not discussing an outcome but it is possible that some members may suggest a statement or remarks to the press on behalf of the Council by its President following the meeting.
Media reports indicate that hundreds of Syrian civilians – including women and children – have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons, in towns to the east of Damascus. Activists and rebel fighters have accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of firing chemical-tipped weapons into these areas in the early hours of the morning.
A UN team led by Professor Äke Sellström is currently in the Syrian Arab Republic to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in a number incidents in Syria earlier this year. The UN team, which is expected to establish only whether chemical weapons including sarin and other toxic nerve agents were used, not who used them, had been given permission to visit Khan-al-Assal and two other sites. (The visit had been held up for months as the Syrian government had been reluctant to give agreement for the investigations. Agreement was finally reached following discussions between the Syrian government, Sellström and UN disarmament chief Angela Kane.) Following today’s attack a statement from the Secretary-General said Sellström is in discussions with the Syrian Government on “all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident.” As the Syrian government had only given permission to visit three specific sites further negotiations may be needed to investigate the new attack.
Members of the Council, while acknowledging that further information is needed, have reacted swiftly to the attacks. The US strongly condemned any use of chemical weapons saying that those responsible must be held accountable and requested the UN to formally investigate the new allegation. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Syria must allow UN inspectors immediate access to investigate claims that chemical weapons were used in an attack on the outskirts of Damascus. France too said that it would ask the UN to look into this attack. There are also media reports that France and the UK would be sending a joint letter to the Secretary-General asking him to order the UN chemical weapons team to go to the scene to investigate. Russia called for a fair and professional investigation of the attack while suggesting that the attack could have been a provocation by the opposition.
The clear divisions among the P5 continue to make any substantive Council action on Syria difficult. However, with the US having indicated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for it and given the strong reactions from a number of other members, it is possible that this incident may provide the impetus for some members to push for more active Council involvement on Syria.