U.N. experts to probe alleged Syria chemical attacks


— The main Western-backed Syrian opposition will not take part in any peace negotiations with the government until rebels gain the upper hand on the battlefield again, the group’s chief said Wednesday. Ahmad al-Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, said rebels were regrouping after a series of setbacks and predicted they would regain ground in the coming “few weeks.”

— U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that a recent Israeli airstrike on a warehouse in Syria did not succeed in destroying all the Russian-made anti-ship cruise missiles that were its target, U.S. officials said Wednesday, and that further Israeli strikes are likely. Israel carried out an attack July 5 near Latakia to destroy the missiles, which Russia had sold to Syria.

— News services

U.N. experts will travel to Syria as soon as possible to investigate three alleged incidents of chemical weapons attacks, the United Nations announced Wednesday.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the green light for the investigation came after “the understanding reached with the government of Syria” during last week’s visit to Damascus by U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane and the head of the chemical weapons investigation team, Ake Sellstrom.

The announcement caps more than four months of behind-the-scenes talks aimed at getting chemical experts on the ground to investigate more than one alleged incident. Whether any signs of chemical weapons use remain at the three sites months after their alleged use remains to be seen.

The mandate of the investigation team is to report on whether chemical weapons were used, and if so which chemical weapon, but not to determine the responsibility for an attack.

When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon agreed to a U.N. investigation in March, he said the announcement “should serve as an unequivocal reminder that the use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity.”

Nesirky said Sellstrom’s team will visit Khan al-Assal, a village on the southwestern outskirts of the embattled city of Aleppo, which was captured by the rebels last week and was under attack by government forces Wednesday. The government and rebels blame each other for a purported chemical weapons attack on the village on March 19 that killed at least 30 people.

Nesirky did not give any details of the other two incidents to be investigated. A well-informed U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions on the issue have been private, said Sellstrom is expected to choose the two other sites based on the technical and scientific information the U.N. has received from governments, doctors, alleged victims and others.

Syria asked the secretary-general to investigate the Khan al-Assal incident and balked at a broader investigation sought by Ban after Britain, France and the United States sent the U.N. information about other alleged attacks in Homs, Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere.

U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry told the Security Council last week that the U.N. has received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.

“The secretary-general remains mindful of other reported incidents,” Nesirky said Wednesday, “and the mission will also continue to seek clarification from the member states concerned.”

The diplomat emphasized that the chemical weapons experts ought have access to all 13 sites in the future. Last week, the Syrian National Coalition, the Western-backed opposition group, told members of the U.N. Security Council that it would provide access to a U.N. investigation team to any sites they control, the diplomat said.

Britain and France initially raised allegations of chemical weapons use in two locations in Khan al-Assal and the village of Ataybah in the vicinity of Damascus on March 19 and in Homs on Dec. 23.

On June 13, the United States said it had conclusive evidence that Syrian President Bashar 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, not just humanitarian aid and nonlethal material like armored vests and night goggles.