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Worrying signs: Sarin gas used in Syria?

May 08, 2013

EVEN though there is still no “irrefutable proof” that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, the UN’s rights investigator says she has “very strong suspicions” that it is the rebels and not government troops who have used sarin nerve gas. Carla del Ponte was careful in the interview with a Swiss Italian broadcaster and said her organisation had not yet “excluded” the use of the deadly sarin gas by the Syrian government. But, based on evidence from doctors and victims, Ms Del Ponte said she had “strong” and “concrete” suspicions that it was rebel militias which had used chemical weapons against their opponents. America and, most surprisingly, her own organisation — represented by the four-member UN commission of inquiry for Syria — tried to pooh-pooh her findings. A State Department spokesman rebutted Ms Del Ponte’s claim and said there was no “information” that suggested that the rebel forces had either the “capability or the intent” to use the nerve gas. The chief of the four-man UN committee also said his organisation had not reached “conclusive findings” that either side had used the banned weapons.

Ms Del Ponte’s findings are very embarrassing for the Obama administration, the European Union and some Middle Eastern regimes which have backed the rebels, even though the character of the Syrian conflict has undergone a major change. Supposed originally to be part of the ‘Arab Spring’ that began in Tunisia, the armed struggle against the government of President Bashar al-Assad for democratic reforms has acquired a sectarian character and fallen victim to geopolitics. While Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are supplying arms to the rebels, Hezbollah has entered the conflict on the regime’s side. More menacingly, Iraqi and Syrian chapters of Al Qaeda have joined hands. Western powers must realise the harm they are doing to the region by arming the Free Syrian Army, which now has a strong fundamentalist component. An Al Qaeda victory could turn Syria into an Afghanistan in the heart of oil-rich Middle East.