U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon will brief Security Council members early Monday on results of an investigation into whether chemical weapons were deployed in rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus last month.
While a leading watchdog group published a report last week linking the government of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad to the attack, the U.N.-backed investigators do not have the mandate to point fingers at the likely culprit. Rather, the team was simply tasked with confirming that chemical weapons were used in the Syrian capital on Aug. 21 and, if so, to identify what type of agent was deployed.
Regardless of what is learned, Ban’s briefing is not expected to derail the monumental diplomatic breakthrough forged between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva over the weekend. According to the agreement, Syrian authorities will begin allowing on-site inspections of their chemical weapons facilities as early as November, while the country’s illicit stockpiles are scheduled to be “eliminated” during the first-half of 2014.
During an press conference in Jerusalem on Sunday, Kerry was adamant that the military option had not been taken off the table in the event that the Assad regime refuses to hold up its end of the bargain. “President Obama has made it clear that to accomplish that, the threat of force remains,” he said. “The threat of force is real.”
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande said he was planning to push for a vote on a U.N. resolution in line with the new U.S.-Russian deal by the end of the week. During an interview with France’s TF1 television on Sunday, Hollande reiterated that the resolution must include penalties in the event of non-compliance. “It must include the threat of sanctions — that there is some kind of sanction if it is not applied,” he said.
With Western-backed military action shelved for the foreseeable future, forces loyal to Assad reportedly stepped up their offensive against rebel groups over the weekend. According a report by Reuters, government-backed troops unleashed air strikes, shelling and ground assaults on rebel-held positions in Damascus on Sunday. With their momentum on the battlefield apparently waning, rebels dismissed the weekend’s breakthrough and warned that diplomatic maneuvering had failed to remove Assad during two years of civil war.
“The international community is providing a new chance for Assad’s gangs to continue the criminal play in Syria,” rebel commander Bashir Hajji told the New York Times.
In an open letter published by Lancet medical journal on Monday, more than 50 leading health professionals, including three Nobel Laureates, called on the Syrian government and armed militants to halt the “deliberate and systematic” targeting of medical facilities and personnel.
According to the World Health Organization, “37% of Syrian hospitals have been destroyed and a further 20% severely damaged” as the Syrian conflict enters its third year.