The UN Inspectors’ Job in Syria

The search for evidence of chemical weapons in Syria is painstaking and hampered by harsh conditions, but could yield decisive findings as debate over military action intensifies, says expert Amy E. Smithson.

August 29, 2013

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

More on:


Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

The UN inspection team investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria has begun the painstaking work of sifting through weapon fragments, clothing, and clumps of dirt for evidence of lethal chemicals. The conditions are daunting, says weapons expert Amy E. Smithson, but such teams have proven their ability to shed light on chemical weapons use. "One can’t guarantee that the inspectors will come out of there with evidence that could clarify the circumstances but in the past very often that has been exactly what has occurred," Smithson says. She says it is crucial for the inspectors to complete their findings about alleged poison gas attacks before any military response in launched.

United Nations chemical weapons expertsUnited Nations chemical weapons experts, escorted by Free Syrian Army fighters, meet with residents at one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus’ suburbs of Zamalka (Bassam Khabieh/Courtesy Reuters).

If you were on the UN inspection team currently in Syria, how would you go about your work?

The first thing that the inspectors would want to find at the attack site are fragments, or the remnants of the delivery system that was used in these attacks. Not only can those delivery systems be sampled to obtain very reliable evidence of the chemicals that they contained, but often the fragments of a weapon can be reassembled, and on the outside of a weapon there are often unique markings to indicate whether the round is chemical, biological or nuclear. So those are the types of things they are going to look first and foremost for at the attack site.

"Let’s not take away from the international community a tool that is vital to getting international agreement that a wrong has indeed occurred."

Apparently these sites are being repeatedly bombed by the Assad regime, so that will make this task very difficult. In addition it will complicate any attempt to take what are know as environmental samples—samples from the area of dirt, of paint chips, of other materials from the attack area where the gas is likely to have come in contact. It is said that the residues of an attack disappear quickly. Sometimes that is true, but in the case of Saddam Hussein’s attacks on Kurds that took place March of 1988, four years later samples were taken by [the NGO] Physicians for Human Rights at these sites and they were analyzed at the United Kingdom’s top chemical and biological defense facility at Porton Down. These samples very clearly showed the degradation of nerve agents in mustard gas.

So they don’t necessarily deteriorate?

It depends on the agent used, and in this case this may not just be one toxic chemical. It very much looks like it’s one or more chemicals from the organophosphorus family of chemicals. Nerve agents fall into that category, but it may be an industrial chemical. Sometimes these classic warfare agents are known as a "cocktail." At this point sample analysis will be very important but that’s not the only place where the inspectors will want to collect samples. They have already been to the hospitals and they have done interviews with the surviving victims of the attacks on August 21, and reportedly, they have also been able to obtain samples.

Additional detail has not been released about those samples, but according to their protocol they would be seeking to obtain samples of the clothing the victims wore; blood and urine samples from them and from those who died; an autopsy, [if one] can be performed or has been preformed; and brain tissue. Whether or not they’re good in terms of revealing the cause of injury or death depends on when those samples were taken and how they were stored.

There have been press reports about an agent called sarin. Describe what it is.

Sarin is one of several agents that fall into the category of nerve agents, along with VX, Soman, and Tabun. These are some of the deadliest chemicals ever invented. They have been specifically selected by militaries for stockpiling for the purposes of chemical war. They are currently prohibited for use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention, although members of this treaty are allowed to manufacture very small quantities of these chemicals to test their defenses. [These are] under the watchful eye of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has contributed a number of the inspectors to the current UN secretary-general’s investigation.

Where would Syria get these weapons? Do they make them themselves?

Syria’s chemical weapons program, according to public sources, reports by the intelligence community, and a variety of other places, dates back to the 1970s. Initially, Egypt is thought to have given them a helping hand, perhaps even with some hand-me-down weapons. Subsequently they have gotten technical as well as material assistance from Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The North Koreans apparently provided delivery systems including rockets and missiles. The Iranians and Russians are thought to have provided precursor chemicals as well as technical advice. The Syrian government has a number of sites that have been identified for research and production of chemical weapons; in fact, we have them up on a website. For the past decade or so the Syrian government hasn’t had to lean on outside technical assistance or material assistance. They have had the capability to produce these types of weapons domestically.

Can we know if such an attack was carried out without Assad’s knowledge?

One can’t rule out the possibility that a commander went rogue and decided to act without authorization. Apparently, the Obama administration will soon release signals intelligence that will provide details about the commands and orders given in association with the attacks of August 21, so stay tuned.

Should the United States wait for the UN inspectors to complete their report?

The international community’s skepticism has lingered since U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell’s speech in front of the United Nations prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Powell presented evidence that Saddam Hussein retained a weapons-of-mass-destruction capability, and perhaps the highlight of that evidence was the allegation that Iraq had a mobile biological-weapons capacity. The source of that intelligence was an Iraqi defector who [later] admitted to the Guardian that he made it all up. In the face of that it’s understandable that the international community would want to have a report from the inspectors before military action is taken.

One can’t guarantee that the inspectors will come out of there with evidence that could clarify the circumstances but in the past very often that has been exactly what has occurred. There have been a dozen prior UN investigations of allegations of the use of chemical weapons. In Mozambique the allegations [raised in 1992] didn’t hold water, according to the inspectors. During the Iran–Iraq War [1980-1988] there were eight separate investigations. The last of those very clearly indicated that the evidence was consistent with repeated use by Iraqi forces of chemical weapons, and that evidence consisted of samples from the bomb fragments, soil samples, and medical evidence from the victims. So let’s not count out the inspectors and let’s not take away from the international community a tool that is vital to getting international agreement that a wrong has indeed occurred and that something must be done to right it.