DAMASCUS, Syria – The United Nations disarmament chief arrived in the Syrian capital on Saturday to press President Bashar Assad’s regime to allow U.N. experts to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack this week that reportedly killed more than 130 people.
Angela Kane, who was dispatched by the U.N. secretary-general to push for a speedy investigation into Wednesday’s purported attack outside the Syrian capital, did not speak to reporters upon her arrival in Damascus.
A political solution remains the best way to end the civil war in Syria, says Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, even in the face of what he calls “overwhelming” evidence of a chemical weapons attack against civilians in that country.
Canada wants to ensure it has all the facts before deciding how to respond to allegations that chemical weapons killed as many as 1,300 people this week outside Damascus, Baird said Friday.
“Our first response is to validate the use of these chemical weapons,” he said after a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart on picturesque Meech Lake in Chelsea, Que., about half an hour outside Ottawa.
“The evidence is increasingly building up, and it’s overwhelming.”
Baird’s message of political parley may fall on deaf ears when he meets with the head of Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group.
George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council, is expected to visit Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa next week. Following the deadly attacks in which he alleges that the Syrian government used nerve gas against its own population, Sabra has dismissed any hope for a political solution to end the bloodshed in his country.
Baird strongly suggested that he believes the attacks were carried out by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying he hopes Assad’s key ally Russia can convince the regime to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the location of the shelling spree.
“If our colleague (Russian foreign affairs minister) Sergey Lavrov believes that the opposition used chemical weapons against their own people, he should be most enthusiastic to use his influence with President Assad to let those UN investigators in,” said Baird.
“The fact that Russia, being the chief supporter and chief ally of Syria that has allowed Assad to soldier on, can’t convince him to allow the inspectors in, I think, is quite telling.”
The United Nations has demanded Syria give its chemical weapons experts immediate access to the rebel-held Damascus suburbs where the attacks took place, just a few kilometres from a hotel where the inspectors are staying.
They were allowed into the country this week, but have had their movements limited to other locations.
Images broadcast and published around the world have shown scores of people, some foaming at the mouth, and dead bodies laid out on floors on the outskirts of Damascus with no visible signs of injury.
Rebels in Syria are crying for outside help, and have accused the West of sitting idle while they watch people dying.
The Syrian government insists the attacks were not its doing and Moscow has said rebels may have released gas to discredit Assad. Still, Russian officials have urged Assad to agree to a UN inspection.
Britain and France have warned that foreign force may need to be used to end the mayhem in Syria, although Washington has taken a more cautious tone.
Baird said Canada would work with its allies to determine what steps, if any, need to be taken to deal with a complicated problem.
“If there was an easy solution the (UN) Security Council, Canada and like-minded countries would have tackled it much sooner than now,” said Baird.
“We’re obviously appalled at the violence.”
The U.S., Britain, France and Russia have all urged the Assad regime and the rebels fighting to overthrow him to co-operate with the United Nations and allow U.N. experts already in Syria to look into the latest purported use of chemical agents.
Anti-government activists accuse the Syrian government of carrying out a toxic gas attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday and have reported death tolls ranging from 136 to 1,300. Even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria’s civil war, now in its third year.
The Assad regime has denied the claims that it was behind the chemical attack, calling them “absolutely baseless” and suggesting they are an attempt to discredit the government.
The U.N. experts already in Syria are tasked with investigating three earlier purported chemical attacks in the country: one in the village of Khan al-Assal outside the northern city of Aleppo in March, as well as two other locations that have been kept secret for security reasons.
It took months of negotiations between the U.N. and Damascus before an agreement was struck to allow the 20-member team into Syria to investigate. Its mandate is limited to those three sites, however, and it is only charged with determining whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them.
Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told The Associated Press on Thursday that he was personally in favour of a fair, transparent international delegation to investigate the latest incident. But he said that would require a new agreement between the government and the United Nations, and that the conditions for such a delegation would need to be studied.