September 18, 2013

Rocket trajectory links Syrian military to chemical attack

The Associated Press

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A volunteer adjusts a gas mask and protective suit on a student during a classroom session on how to respond to a chemical weapons attack in Aleppo, Syria. The drills came amid continued diplomatic wrangling over how to collect Syria's arsenal of chemical and biological agents.

The Associated Press via AP Video

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The HRW report matched what several experts concluded after reading the U.N. report. The U.N. inspectors were not instructed to assess which side was responsible for the attack.

"While the U.N. stuck within its mandate, it has provided enough data to provide an overwhelming case that this had to be government-sponsored," said Anthony Cordesman, national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The inspectors described the rockets used to disperse the sarin as a variant of an M14 artillery rocket, with either an original or an improvised warhead, which the rebels are not known to have.

There is no conceivable way to prove the rebels could not have gotten them, Cordesman said, but he added that the modification of the rockets pointed to the regime.

The U.N. diplomat in New York pointed to citations in the U.N. report and a private briefing to the U.N. Security Council by chief inspector Ake Sellstrom that reveal the scale of the attack: The seven rockets examined had a total payload of about 350 liters (about 92 gallons) of sarin, including sophisticated stabilizing elements that match those known to be in the Syrian stockpile.

This makes it "virtually impossible" that it came from any source other than the Syrian government, the diplomat said, adding that there were likely other rockets used that the inspectors couldn't get to.

The diplomat added that the trajectory points directly at known Syrian military bases. "There isn't a shred of evidence in the other direction," he said.

Syrian legislator Issam Khalil denied the Human Rights Watch report.

"These rockets were fired by terrorists in order to draw a military act against Syria," Khalil told The Associated Press in Damascus. "We believe that a fair, transparent and objective international investigation is the only way to specify that side responsible for firing these rockets."

Russia has been Syria's main ally since the conflict began in March 2011, blocking proposed U.N. resolutions that would impose sanctions on Assad's regime and opposing an attempt to authorize the use of force if Syria does not abide by the agreement struck Sept. 14 between Moscow and Washington to rid Damascus of its chemical weapons stockpile.

According to a top Russian diplomat and a Syrian official, Damascus has turned over materials to Russia that aim to show the chemical weapons attack was carried out by the rebels.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying that Syria told Russian officials the material it handed over shows "rebels participating in the chemical attack," but that Moscow has not yet drawn any conclusions.

Ryabkov also told pro-Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today that Russia has submitted to the U.N. Security Council what Moscow called credible evidence that suggests the Syrian government did not fire the chemical weapons.

"We are unhappy about this (U.N.) report, we think that the report was distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it was built is insufficient," Ryabkov said.

The reports did not specify the nature of the new material turned over by Syria to Russia, which Ryabkov said would be closely analyzed.

According to ITAR-Tass, Ryabkov said Russia was "inclined to treat with great seriousness the material from the Syrian side about the involvement of the rebels in the chemical attack of Aug. 21."

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