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Syria's chaos complicates task for chemical weapons investigators

What should be the response if Syria deploys chemical weapons? Channel 4's Jonathan Miller reports.

Prospects for a quick conclusion to a U.N. investigation of a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria will depend on cooperation from the warring parties and safety for investigators — problematic conditions in the chaos of the country's civil war, an expert on weapons control told NBC News on Thursday.


Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that he had agreed to conduct an investigation of allegations of an attack in the northern city of Aleppo. The government and the opposition have accused each other of carrying out that attack on Tuesday.


Ralf Trapp, a German who works on disarmament and non-proliferation issues, specializing on chemical and biological weapons, said the first job of an inspection team would be safely getting to and operating at the site. He said then -- if the Syrian parties cooperated and the inspectors felt safe — they would:

 

  • Interview victims and bystanders on what they felt, smelled, saw, etc.
  • Search for remnants of any weapons used. That is often difficult and unproductive, but the earlier one gets to the scene, the better.
  • Take samples at the site. Pieces of weapons are rarely found, Trapp said, but the chemical agent can be uncovered in soil, plants and, if in an urban environment, bricks and building materials. Beyond the agent, inspectors will look for chemicals left behind as the agents themselves deteriorate.
  • Conduct medical tests on the victims, including taking tissue samples, blood samples and, if the teams arrive quickly enough, urine samples. Samples in some cases can be analyzed on the scene, but if the inspections are delayed, there are labs in Europe and the U.S. that can find evidence in DNA and proteins.

Trapp said a big question will be how soon the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – of which Trapp is a former official -- can get a team into Aleppo. He said the team would have to be large and varied, with security officers and medical officers as well as inspectors.

But each day lost will influence the speed with which the investigation can be concluded, he said, because as more time elapses before biological sampling occurs, more sophisticated DNA and other toxicological testing is required. 

With optimum cooperation and conditions on the ground, an investigation led by the OPCW could be under way in days, Trapp said. A determination, including the pinpointing of the agent, could be made within days after arrival, he said -- if there is good access to interviews and environmental and biological samples. He said his former organization has equipment at the ready and could move quickly.

But if the inspection is conducted by the kind of UN group that investigated the allegations against Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, with countries nominating experts and then gathering them, getting inspectors in could take weeks, he said. 

Considering that Aleppo is a war zone, optimum conditions are unlikely.

Trapp would not speculate on what agents were used, but he said that he has seen no reports of blistering, and without blistering, it is unlikely to have been mustard gas — although he said it’s possible that some victims might have only internal blistering.

Evidence of a nerve gas attack, for example, would be found in corpses. Victims would show certain telltale signs, like tiny pupils, saliva around the noses and eyes. There might be evidence of convulsions.

He did not dismiss the use of more common agents that are not on the proscribed list of chemical weapons. Victims said they smelled chlorine, and those felled in the attacks reported suffocating.  Chlorine, of course, is found throughout the industrial world and in large quantities can kill. Moreover, feelings of suffocation could be associated with a chlorine attack.

The chemical has a long history of use. It was the first chemical used as a weapon in World War I by German troops against French and French colonial forces. There are reports that insurgents in Iraq used chlorine in huge quantities in their attacks.

Similarly, tear gas, if used in large quantities in a confined space, can suffocate and kill.

Trapp was careful to note that even though chlorine or tear gas are not listed as prohibited weapons on the Chemical Weapons Convention, each could be considered a chemical weapon if used as a "method of warfare" rather than as being used for law enforcement or crowd control. The convention bars the use of chemicals in general as a "method of warfare." 

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George Ourfalian / Reuters

Residents and medics transport a Syrian Army soldier, injured in what they said was a chemical weapon attack near Aleppo, to a hospital on March 19. Syria's government and rebels accused each other of firing a rocket loaded with chemical agents outside the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday.