WASHINGTON -- A United Nations report released Monday confirmed that poison gas was used against Syrian civilians in a deadly attack last month that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the most significant use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of villagers in 1988.
Ban said U.N. inspectors had found “overwhelming and indisputable” evidence that surface-to-surface rockets carrying the banned nerve agent sarin were fired into the Ghouta suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21, according to the report presented to the U.N. Security Council. Assigning culpability for the attack wasn’t part of the team’s mandate, but experts say the findings point to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces based on the munitions used and the sophistication and range of the delivery system.
“Any way you cut it, this has been a bad day for Bashar Assad,” said Brian Finlay, a chemical weapons specialist who’s the managing director of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based global security research center. “The report suggests he either A, ordered chemical weapons use, or B, lost control of his military and they used it.”
In New York, Ban refused to speculate on blame, but he called the attack a war crime and vowed that the perpetrators would be held accountable. He added that issues of responsibility would be discussed at the Security Council, where talks are underway over potential consequences should Assad fail to comply with a U.S.-Russian plan to seize Syrian chemical stockpiles.
“We may all have our own thoughts on this, but I will simply say that this was a grave crime and those responsible must be brought to justice as soon as possible,” Ban said.
The report, considered the most thorough and neutral to date in the Syrian chemical weapons controversy, concludes that chemical weapons were used “on a relatively large scale” in the civil war that’s raged for more than two years. The Ghouta attack was particularly deadly, the report said, because it took place very early in the morning, when low temperatures helped the gas seep into basements where families had taken shelter.
Just getting to the impact sites was a feat for the inspectors, who relied on assurances from both the regime and rebel fighters for safe passage but still came under fire and received “repeated threats of harm.” With only hours to conduct their work, team members interviewed more than 50 survivors, medical personnel and first responders, according to the U.N. They assessed victims’ symptoms and collected hair, urine and blood samples.
The survivors’ accounts make for what Ban called “chilling reading,” with descriptions of common symptoms suffered immediately after the shelling that morning: shortness of breath, runny noses, blurred vision, vomiting, weakness and eventual loss of consciousness. The report said people who first went to the scene to help the victims observed “a large number of individuals lying on the ground,” dead or unconscious, and then began suffering their own symptoms.
“Several of these ‘first responders’ also became ill, with one describing the onset of blurred vision, generalized weakness, shaking, a sensation of impending doom, followed by fainting,” according to the report.