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Saudis sceptical about deal on Assad’s weaponry

20 September 2013


Allies: the US Secretary of State, John Kerry (right) in talks with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague prior to a meeting on Syria at the Quai d'Orsay in Paris, on Monday   

Allies: the US Secretary of State, John Kerry (right) in talks with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague prior to a meeting on Syria at the Quai d'O...

THE conclusion of a special UN inspections-team sent to Syria, that there was "clear and convincing evidence" of the use of banned Sarin gas in attacks on the outskirts of Damascus in August, has bolstered the case for Russia's plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under international supervision. But it has done nothing to end the conflict itself. Saudi Arabia - one of the leading anti-Syrian regime states - has indirectly accused the United States of being side-tracked by the Russian scheme.

After the Syria report had been presented in private to the UN Security Council, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said that the document had made for "chilling reading". On the basis of evidence obtained during the UN investigation, "chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in [Syria], also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale."

The report did not directly accuse the Syrian government of using the chemicals, but this was the implication. The team, led by a Swedish scientist Dr Åke Sellström, concluded that the environmental, chemical, and medical samples collected provided "clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-air rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah, and Zamalka, in the Ghouta area of Damascus."

Mr Ban called the results "overwhelming and indisputable. The facts speak for themselves. The United Nations Mission has now confirmed, unequivocally and objectively, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. . . This is a war crime." He added that 85 per cent of blood samples from the sites in Ghouta tested positive for Sarin, and the majority of the rocket fragments were also found to be carrying the deadly nerve agent.

Mr Ban described the attack in Syria as the most serious incident of its kind since Saddam Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the Halabja region of northern Iraq in 1988. "The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable," he continued, "and to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare."

Mr Ban said that he hoped that intensive discussions between Russia and the US would reach a firm agreement on the safeguarding and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. The unity of the Security Council "will be crucial. Given the gravity of the situation, I urge the Council to consider ways to ensure enforcement of, and compliance with, the plan through a clear resolution."

Britain is one of the states backing the Russian-led initiative. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told the BBC on Tuesday that getting Mr Assad to comply with a UN resolution would be difficult: "It is a huge task, as I warned the House of Commons: probably the largest stock of chemical weapons in the world held on multiple sites." But he said that ridding Syria of chemical weapons "is possible, providing the international community is insistent and the Assad regime is compliant".

But one of the West's main allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, is clearly irritated by what it regards as the failure by Britain and the US to take military action against Syria - and their acceptance of the Russian plan. A communiqué issued after the weekly Saudi cabinet meeting on Monday called on the international community to "take effective decisions to stop the fighting in Syria immediately and increase support for the opposition".

The cabinet's statement also urged the world not to be sidetracked by the deal on chemical weapons away from the need to take military action against the Assad regime. One political commentator interpreted the statement as a "clear signal that the kingdom believes the Americans are being hoodwinked and are taking the easy way out".

The commentator said that newspapers were being encouraged by government sources to pursue this line. One prominent daily was saying that "the Russians have successfully dragged the Americans into the trap of entering a long tunnel of negotiations, talks, and accusations. It would also appear that the Americans are completely willing to enter into Moscow's traps." Eventually, the paper said, Assad's position would be strengthened rather than weakened.

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