The United Nations’ lead chemical weapons investigator Ake Sellstrom, in a wide-ranging interview with Gwyn Winfield of the specialist journal CBRNe World, talks about the August 21 attacks near Damascus that killed hundreds of people.
Sellstrom does not blame either the Assad regime or the insurgents for the attacks, but he is firm about the weakness of regime claims that the opposition was responsible:
Several times I asked the government: can you explain — if this was the opposition –– how did they get hold of the chemical weapons? They have quite poor theories: they talk about smuggling through Turkey, labs in Iraq and I asked them, pointedly, what about your own stores, have your own stores being stripped of anything, have you dropped a bomb that has been claimed, bombs that can be recovered by the opposition? They denied that.
To me it is strange. If they really want to blame the opposition they should have a good story as to how they got hold of the munitions, and they didn’t take the chance to deliver that story.
But Sellstrom does not completely rule out the assertions of Damascus about other incidents, such as the March 2013 attack in Khan al-Asal in Aleppo Province:
(It) is an interesting case as the government were the first ones to do a real investigation and they invited the Russians, and then us, to do an investigation. The only reason we are not allowed to go there is that because we ask to go to Homs and other places, and the Syrians say, “Stop it, stop it. We asked you to come to Khan Al Asal, we didn’t ask you to come to Homs, or any other place. You are welcome to Khan al Asal, you are not welcome to any other place. We don’t want an Iraq in Syria.”
So there was a background that makes you believe that maybe, just maybe, that the government was right.
GW: What was your reaction when you heard that there had been a chemical attack two days after landing? Presumably you were in a state of disbelief that no sooner did you land and something major happened! How did you find out?
AS: We heard it on the news. The opposition is very quick in transmitting information to the news. They refer to those doing it as activists; on every occasion when something is happening they will have a guy taking videos and sending them to Youtube or to
wherever. The morning of 21 August, before we had breakfast, I put on the telly and saw what the rest of the world saw numbers of people in basements, washing with water and dead people and children.
GW: The timing immediately seemed suspect. No sooner did the inspectors come and they were given such an attack. Was there concern that this was a media campaign, rather than a military one? That these were videos that had been previously prepared?
AS: It did seem well prepared in a way. The suspicion was there, but it was so big that you thought; you had to think in other terms. Was this instigated by the government? Was this a breach from government policy with Assad’s brother challenging the President? What is going on?
There was clearly a message. Why is this happening now? Why did it happen when we were there? Was it the opposition sending a message to the world or the President’s brother? Just what is going on?
GW: Were you provided any information from government handlers? How did they try and spin it? Did they say it wasn’t happening or was it FSA (Free Syrian Army) misinformation?
AS: We were in scheduled meetings in those days. So about ten o’clock that day we had a meeting with the government and I pulled the senior representative aside and told him that I had been watching the news and wondered whether he was informed. He
said he was and I stated that we were interested and wanted to see what was happening. His comment at the time was that it was propaganda and that there was a war going on, so you could not go there as there was fighting.
Then I was approached by the Secretary General and asked to negotiate our way into this. I then approached in a more official way and
they came back with the same story, “This is a war zone, you cannot go in.” I countered that surely there must be people escaping from this place and there is information that we can get from the people coming out and that there would be contamination and so on. They were not up for helping us, or facilitating anything. Then the High Representative of Disarmament, Angela Kane, came over and she and I started formal negotiations, and after 24 hours of negotiation they let us come in and investigate five hours a day for four consecutive days.
GW: Then you had the bizarre situation of everyone getting in the trucks, driving out there and being shot at by a sniper.
That must have been hugely frustrating to get so close and look like it would all be called off. It must have looked as if
there was subterfuge going on; or did you see it as a genuine incident?
AS: We were warned before we left that once you leave an area controlled by someone and enter into another group’s territory, either government or opposition, that if someone claims to be the “big monkey” there they will shoot at us. We were warned that this will happen mainly to show us that they have weapons, to show you that they are the big monkey in this area. This shooting would be quite random and not very serious.
At that time there was targeted shooting at the first car; I was sitting in the second car and we had only two bullets in the car, but the first car had deliberate and pointed shooting. We came to the conclusion that they were not trying to hurt us, but sending a signal. We also thought that they wanted to scare the guy sitting in the front car as he was the main negotiator with the opposition and was sitting on quite a large active network among the opposition. The signal was that this guy should watch out and be careful with his distance!
GW: When did you really get an idea of the enormity of what, seemingly, had just happened? Since you were delayed at the hotel, by the time you got there a lot of the bodies had been buried quickly, due to local customs, so it was not as if you could do a fatality or casualty count. So when you got there how did you get an idea of the scale?
AS: We had an appreciation that this was big even if we didn’t believe the figures given on telly. We’d had to negotiate a ceasefire with the government, and the night before we had to negotiate on Skype a ceasefire with the opposition. We had to instruct the opposition that we wanted people who had been badly hurt but had survived. We wanted in the first case 30 of them, and in the last 50 of them, so we wanted 80 injured people for examination interviews and sample taking, and from them we would take a sub sample. We wouldn’t sample all 80.
We sampled 15 and then 25, and we picked them ourselves from the larger number. We are either in an area controlled by the government or one controlled by the rebels; we are not free to do anything. That’s why we worked like this. We thought that if they can gather 80 people who were affected, but still surviving, that it was clearly indicative that a major event had taken place. If you take the figures from Tokyo you can compare how many people died versus those that were intoxicated. So while we could conclude that it was big,
we couldn’t do the same for how many died or were affected. There were three hospitals, we visited two of them, and the figures that they presented of people who passed through them was just not possible. We saw the capability of those hospitals and it is impossible that they could have turned over the amount of people that they claim they did.