By now, all sides agree that chemical weapons got deployed in a Damascus suburb last week, leading to hundreds of deaths from neurotoxic symptoms, including women and children. Syrian rebels claimed from the start that the attack came from the Syrian army, which is known to have chemical weapons stores. Later, the Bashar al-Assad regime claimed that it was the rebels who deployed the chemical weapons. At the time, however, they refused to let a nearby UN inspection team into the area to see for themselves what took place, and the West responded by suggesting that Assad’s reluctance was a self-indictment.
Syria will allow U.N. inspectors full access to any site of a purported chemical weapons attack, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad told CNN on Sunday.
The agreement is effective immediately, he said. …
The inspectors hope to begin their probe on Monday at the site of last week’s suspected chemical attack, according to a statement from the office of the U.N. secretary-general.
Al Mekdad said logistics need to be worked out, since arriving at the site will require crossing into rebel-controlled territory.
Rebel forces and the Syrian regime point the finger at each other for Wednesday’s attack. Gruesome video of the aftermath showed numerous bodies, including women and children.
Russia immediately issued a warning about a rush to judgment:
“We strongly urge those who by trying to impose their opinion on U.N. experts ahead of the results of an investigation … to exercise discretion and not make tragic mistakes,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The White House responded by insisting that the agreement came too late to be credible:
A senior administration official told CBS News earlier that any belated move to allow the U.N. inspectors in is already too little, too late.
“At this juncture, any belated decision by the regime to grant access to the UN team would be considered too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling and other intentional actions over the last five days,” the official said.
The senior administration official said the U.S. intelligence community based its assessment given to the White House claiming the Assad regime was responsible for the attack on “the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured,” and witness accounts. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
Five days is a long time to wait for access to what is essentially a crime scene. That leaves plenty of time for a perpetrator to clean up evidence. On the other hand, the same thing could be said for four days, three days, two days, and even one day — and since the custody of the scene was the point of the fight between the Syrian army and the rebels, that applies equally to either side, too. Would it have made any difference in the assessment of credibility if Assad had let inspectors in two days later, assuming the site was secure enough for an inspection? Possibly, but probably not all that much.
Without an inspection, it won’t be clear at all which side used chemical weapons, and probably that will still be true after an inspection. That may not matter, as the West — particularly France — is itching to launch an attack against Assad. This move delays that retaliation, and Assad seems to be gambling that (a) the UN team won’t find any damning evidence against his army, and (b) the more delay there is, the less likely the West can maintain the momentum for retaliation or intervention.