The United Nations' report on the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damacus suggests that it was not just alleged. Calling the attack a "war crime," Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted that evidence of the use of sarin gas was "overwhelming and indisputable." By whom, however, isn't specified.
Ban presented the report to the United Nations Security Council in a private meeting on Monday morning, but made his remarks available to the public. The report itself, also available online, walks through the evidence collected and analyzed by the UN team that was already in the country researching another alleged use of outlawed weapons when the August 21 attack occurred.
The Mission has concluded that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus in the context of the ongoing conflict in Syria. The attack resulted in numerous casualties, particularly among civilians. …
Survivors reported that following an attack with shelling, they quickly experienced a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, disorientation, eye irritation, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting and general weakness. Many eventually lost consciousness. First responders described seeing a large number of individuals lying on the ground, many of them dead or unconscious.
The report itself includes 30 data points, walking through weather conditions, medical evidence, and photographic details of the surface-to-surface rockets that carried the weapons. While the team was limited "due to the security situation" (in Ban's words), its point is direct. The 30th data point simply reads, "This result leaves us with the deepest concern."
It does not assign blame, however. "On the basis of the evidence obtained during our investigation of the Ghouta incident," the report reads, "the conclusion is that, on 21 August 2013, chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale." The name "Bashar al-Assad" does not appear in the text of the document. "The international community has a moral responsibility to hold accountable those responsible," Ban's introduction to the report reads, but the report doesn't identify those parties.
Ban's point in addressing the Security Council with the report was, in part, to call for the group's unity. In other words, he'd like for Russia and China to not veto any effort to introduce a solution to the use of chemical weapons. He praises the tentative agreement reached by the United States and Russia in Geneva, and it's possible that declining to assign blame is part of that political effort.
In presenting the evidence to the Security Council, Ban included information meant to remind the world that the use of chemical weapons and the crime that constitutes is a small portion of the violence that has overwhelmed the country. And further, that the world is implicated in that violence.
The UN Commission of Inquiry has reported that Government and pro-government forces have committed murder, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, rape and torture against civilians. It has also reported that anti-government armed groups have committed murder, executions, torture and hostage-taking. There has been indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighbourhoods by all sides. Yet arms continue to flow to the country and the region.
The team that collected evidence inside Syria notes one detail that suggests why Russia may still be hesitant to excoriate its Syrian allies — and its possible role in the attacks. Photographs of the rockets used to carry the gas include Cyrillic characters, as seen below. That the Russians supply Syria with weapons is not new information, but it's certainly not the sort of thing that the country's government is eager to have be directly implicated in the attack.
The United Nations report will likely not offer any new data for the international diplomats that have been negotiating the world's response — largely outside of the aegis of the body itself. What the report may do, though, is offer insight into why that negotiating process is tricky as it has been.