The U.S., Britain, France and other countries have pressed for a team of United Nations inspectors already in Syria to be granted immediate access to the sites of Wednesday’s purported gas attack that activists say killed more than 130 people. In an attempt to push things along, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is dispatching his disarmament chief to Damascus to press President Bashar Assad’s regime to agree to an investigation.
Timing is vital, experts say, because the more time passes, the harder it is to detect what chemicals – if any – were used. Immediate access also would allow inspectors to collect blood and soil samples themselves and safeguard the chain of custody of and the integrity of the investigation.
But in the chaos and violence of Syria’s civil war, safe passage to the eastern Damascus suburbs in question would be difficult.
That was made clear on Friday, as government artillery on the Qassioun plateau overlooking Damascus pounded those suburbs in the heaviest strikes in days. Booms from the artillery echoed over the city every few minutes, along with several rounds of rocket fire that raised flashes of light from the suburbs. At times, three or four plumes of smoke could be seen billowing on the horizon.
Syrian opposition figures and activists have reported death tolls from Wednesday’s attack ranging from 136 to 1,300. If confirmed, even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria’s civil war. The Assad regime has denied the allegations, calling them “absolutely baseless” and accusing the opposition of staging the whole affair to smear the government and provoke outside intervention.
Russia, which is a close ally of Damascus and its most powerful protector on the international stage, has also accused the opposition of staging the attack to discredit the regime. But on Friday, Moscow also called on both sides of the conflict to facilitate an investigation.