A United Nations security and reconnaissance team tasked with scouting the site of the alleged April 7th chemical weapons attack in Syria came under small arms fire on Wednesday, forcing them to leave the city. It is now unclear when it will be safe for investigators to visit the site.
Despite a flurry of missiles raining down on Syrian targets on Friday night, news (and social) media has been abuzz with a war of words, rather than ordnance, since April 7th’s alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians, apparently carried out by Bashar al Assad regime. Russia, who has provided Assad with direct military support throughout the nation’s civil war and notably took responsibility for ensuring the nation’s chemical weapons stockpiles were destroyed, has since offered a growing number of alternative (and increasingly conspiratorial) theories about what really happened in Douma two weeks ago.
Their explanations for reports of Syrian helicopters dropping drums of gas into the streets of Douma include America and its allies framing Assad to incite a war, but some of the most far fetched claims from Russian officials are based on the idea that the attack simply never happened at all.
While there is historical precedent and a constantly growing body evidence to support the idea that it was Assad’s decision to continue to employ chemical weapons against his own people, there’s really only one way to completely put these conspiracy theories to rest: send in inspectors to conduct an independent analysis of the situation and draw their own conclusions.
Although the area of the chemical attack was, until April 7th at least, still under rebel control, the offensive ultimately secured it for Syrian forces, who have now granted inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) entry to investigate. Of course, the attack took place weeks ago and Syrian forces, who stand accused of the crime, have had control over the area since, but their investigation could still result in important conclusions that may help to offset the ongoing propaganda effort already underway in the digital realm.
“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, Kenneth D. Ward, said. “We are concerned they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the O.P.C.W. fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation.”
However, as security teams tasked with scouting the locations ahead of the inspectors arrived, they immediately reported crowds forming around them, creating a potentially dangerous situation. Soon, small arms fire broke out and a nearby explosive was detonated at one of the two locations. The teams were promptly ordered back to Damascus for their safety as a result.
This isn’t the first hurdle inspectors have faced when trying to assess the legitimacy of claims regarding April 7th’s attack. A mere 48 hours after the incident took place, the OPCW mobilized a team of inspectors that hoped to take samples and interview people in the town, but according to statements made by the UK government, they were not permitted entry.
Despite claiming the attacks had been faked, Syrian and Russian forces had already captured the site of the attack and refused to permit entry to the investigators. Russia then released a statement that said the United Nations had delayed their investigation — a claim quickly refuted by the United Nations themselves.
Now, it would seem any formal investigation will be delayed even further, as the United Nations attempts to find a way to address concerns for the safety of their investigators. Syrian officials have reportedly provided the investigators with a list of 22 people from the region that they can interview, raising further concerns about Syria’s efforts to control the narrative surrounding the attack.
Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press