12/19/2013 10:33 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2014

Who Unleashed Chemical Weapons in Syria? The UN Won't Say

The only recent positive action in Syria has been the dismantling of the country's stockpile of chemical arms. The poison sarin has been deployed several times over the past year but one may never know who was responsible without an impartial investigation.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for justice, telling the UN General Assembly: "The international community has a moral and political responsibility to hold accountable those responsible, to deter future incidents and to ensure that chemical weapons can never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare."

But who would do this is vague. The UN Human Rights Council is preparing a report of culprits but will not be allowed into the country to probe further, at least not while President Bashar al-Assad is in power.

In the meantime, the United States, Britain and France have filled the gap and analyzed the results. Russia, an ally of Syria, slammed the West, particularly U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. Diplomats believe the accusatory statement from Moscow's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, indicated Russia and Syria believed they were winning the war. (see Russian text).

Swedish scientist Åke Sellström headed a joint UN mission with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to to determine if such weapons were used in Syria and presented his final report late last week.*

"Won't stand up in court"
But the team did not have a mandate to investigate who used the weapons in the nearly three-year old civil war between al-Assad's government and a variety of opposition parties and militia.

"I don't have the information that would stand up in court," Sellström told a news conference.

The worst attack of the five incidents documented by the mission was on August 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Information given by the panel indicated the Syrian government was responsible for the 1,400 deaths, including children, in an area controlled by the opposition. Russia says the opposition fired on itself to provoke military action by the United States.

After the Ghouta attack, President Obama threatened air strikes against Syrian military facilities, prompting the Damascus government to dismantle its chemical arms program in a deal arranged by Russia and the United States. The process of getting Syrian chemicals that can be used to make weapons out of the country is currently under way.

But Ambassador Churkin's statement showed an aggressiveness rarely seen in public that followed a closed door UN Security Council meeting on Sellström's final report. Russian journalists from all over New York City were asked to come and hear him.

Reaching into history, Churkin said the U.S. reaction in Syria resembled the wars of the 20th century.

"World War II began with a provocation. A provocation triggered the American war in Vietnam and NATO's bombardments of Serbia started with a provocation. Sophisticated filtration of information and manipulation of public opinion preceded the invasion in Iraq. Luckily, this time we managed to avoid an international escalation of the Syrian conflict."

"The chemical attack on August 21 was carried out by the opposition," he added. "Still, the US Permanent Representative to the UN (Ambassador Samantha Power) stated on September 16 she had no information that the opposition possesses sarin. This statement was -- to say the least -- an attempt to mislead the public opinion."

"Giant squid defense"

In response, British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters that "Russia was using the classic diplomatic giant squid defense -- if you squirt enough ink into the water, you try to muddy the waters so that people aren't clear about what happened."

Lyall Grant said that the Sellström reports and answers to Council members made clear that the Syrian government was responsible for several attacks on its own people. Ambassador Gerard Araud of France, this month's UN Security Council president, called the closed-door meeting "acrimonious."

The Sellström report also said chemical weapons were probably used in Khan al Assal outside Aleppo on March 19 against soldiers and civilians, Jobar in Damascus' eastern suburbs on Aug. 24 against government soldiers, Saraqueb near Idlib in the northwest on April 29 against civilians, and Ashrafiah Sahnaya in the Damascus countryside on Aug. 25.

Still, more than 120,000 people have died in the fighting, which began as a protest against Assad's cleptocracy and a reaction to the Arab Spring. But then jihadists from around the region joined the fight. The rebels have multiple origins and are loosely defined as moderates, Islamists and guerrillas attached to Al Qaeda as well part of a regional war between Shias and Sunnis.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Professor Mark Danner said:

In Syria, this formerly cold war, simmering since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and then ignited by the US invasion of Iraq, is now raging: here the Iranians and the Saudis, leaders of the Shia and Sunni blocs, are fighting out their differences "to the last Syrian."

Cherry Picking

Russia said the United States deliberately ignored Moscow's study on the Aleppo area attacks. This accusation, without a definitive UN report, left cherry picking journalists and ideologues free to choose an easy version that suited them: a U.S. conspiracy or Russian deceptiveness.

The Aleppo region is particularly sensitive as the largest city in Syria. A report by the usually reliable London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 76 civilians; including children were killed on Sunday in a government air assault. Syria's state-run SANA news agency said the government killed "armed terrorist groups" in a number of neighborhoods.

The United Nations will soon issue invitations to an international peace conference on Syria, scheduled for January 22 in Montreux, Switzerland, before moving to Geneva. No one is certain who will come but the pressure is on all countries in the region and elsewhere to make it work.

The hope seems to be -- if you build it they will come.

Correction: This post has been updated to clarify the mission of the UN team headed by scientist Åke Sellström.