UNITED NATIONS (AP) — After months of negotiations, the United Nations announced Wednesday that U.N. experts will depart imminently for Syria to investigate alleged chemical weapons use.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave the green light after the Syrian government accepted arrangements for the investigation.
The team is expected to visit three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred, but diplomats and chemical weapons experts have raised doubts about whether they will find anything since the alleged incidents took place months ago.
The mandate for the investigation is also limited: The team will report on whether chemical weapons were used, and if so which ones, but it will not determine the responsibility for an attack. This has led some commentators to question the value of the investigation.
President Bashar Assad’s government initially asked the U.N. to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 on the village of Khan al Assal outside the embattled city of Aleppo, which was captured by the rebels last month. The government and rebels blame each other for the purported attack which killed at least 30 people.
Britain, France and the U.S. followed with allegations of chemical weapons use in Homs, Damascus and elsewhere. U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry told the Security Council last month that the U.N. has received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.
On June 13, the United States said it had conclusive evidence that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against opposition forces. That crossed what President Barack Obama had called a “red line” and prompted a U.S. decision to send arms and ammunition to the opposition.
But agreement on a U.N. investigation was delayed for months because Syria wanted to limit the probe to Khan al-Assal and the secretary-general, backed by the U.S., Britain and France, insisted on a broader investigation.
The U.N. gave approval for the probe on July 31 following an “understanding” reached with Syria during a visit to Damascus by U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane and Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, the team’s leader, that three sites where chemical weapons were allegedly used would be investigated.
One site is Khan al Assal, but the locations of the other two incidents are being kept secret for safety reasons.
For the past two weeks, the Syrian government and the U.N. have been trying to agree on arrangements for the investigation.
The U.N. team completed preparations for the visit over the weekend in The Hague, Netherlands, but its departure was delayed because of differences over details of the investigation.
Following Wednesday’s agreement, U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said “the departure of the team is now imminent,” but he provided no specific date.
Under the agreement with Syria, the team will remain in the country for “up to 14 days, extendable upon mutual consent” to “conduct activities, “including on-site visits,” del Buey said.
He said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is pleased that agreement has been reached “to ensure the proper, safe and efficient conduct of the mission.”
The secretary-general believes an effective investigation of allegations can serve as “an important deterrent” against the use of chemical weapons, del Buey said.
“Our goal remains a fully independent and impartial inquiry,” he said.
Del Buey said “the overwhelming support of the international community for this investigation makes clear that the use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances would constitute an outrageous crime.”
The investigation team includes about 10 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is based in The Hague, and the World Health Organization, based in Geneva.
Del Buey said Ban expressed appreciation to the Syrian government for its cooperation and to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for its support of the mission.