New Syria twist for U.N. as Russia says rebels behind chemical attack

As nerve gas report points to government redoubt in Damascus, Russia says it has materials showing rebels took part in attack

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 11:01am

The United Nation's 68th General Assembly opened with a new impasse over Syria as Russia says President Bashar al-Assad's regime has given them new materials implicating rebels in a chemical attack outside Damascus that is at odds with UN's findings.

The Syrian crisis has already crowded the agenda at the assembly's opening on Tuesday, as the UN chief briefed delegates from more than 190 nations on how rockets filled with nerve gas killed innocent Syrians.

While Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took pains not to express publicly any conclusions about culpability, noting that assigning blame was explicitly beyond the UN's mandate, details buried in the report point directly at elite military formations loyal to Assad.

Russia has repeatedly expressed suspicion that the chemical attack was a "provocation" staged by the rebels with the aim of attracting Western military intervention in the conflict.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who held talks in Damascus yesterday, said Syria had handed over material that "bears witness to the rebels participating in the chemical attack", but Russia had not yet drawn any conclusions.

The ITAR-Tass news agency report did not specify the nature of the new material.

Details buried in the UN report are some of the strongest findings to date that suggest the government gassed its own people. The inspectors listed the precise compass directions of flight for two rocket strikes that appeared to lead back towards the government's elite redoubt in Damascus, Mount Qasioun, which overlooks and protects neighbourhoods and Assad's presidential palace, and where his Republican Guard and the army's powerful Fourth Division are entrenched.

Rebel forces never penetrated Mount Qasioun. In tactical and technical terms, they would almost certainly have been unable to organise and fire sustained and complex barrages of rockets from that location undetected.

The UN evidence was gathered through standard measurements and investigative techniques at places where sarin-filled rockets struck on August 21.

At one impact site, investigators found both the place where the rocket had passed through a "vegetal screen" above a wall just before it hit the ground, and the small impact crater. They said the "line linking the crater and the piercing of the vegetal screen can be conclusively established and has a bearing of 35 degrees".

At another site in Damascus, a 330mm rocket landed on what was described as "earthy, relatively soft ground, where the shaft/engine of the projectile remained dug in, undisturbed until investigated".

The rocket's shaft, the investigators noted, "pointed precisely in a bearing of 285 degrees".

There the investigators' public comments about their observations at impact sites essentially stopped, except for a parting explanation that shows readers how to reach a conclusion that the UN, in accordance with its mandate, did not say.

These azimuths, or compass bearings, they noted, can be reversed to show the direction from which the rockets had been fired. They point back towards the geographic source of the attack, which investigators on the ground presumably would have been able, with their own eyes, to see high above them in the city.

When taken together, the azimuths drawn from different neighbourhoods lead back to and intersect at Mount Qasioun, according to independent and separate calculations by both The New York Times and Human Rights Watch.

The New York Times, Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse