UN investigators will travel to an airbase in Syria this week that the United States and its allies say was used to launch the sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun earlier this year.
In the most conclusive findings to date, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria last month said that a Syrian regime warplane dropped sarin on Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province in April, killing more than 80 civilians and injuring almost 500.
The trip to the Shayrat airfield comes just weeks before the release of a much-awaited report on the attack.
The United States launched a missile attack on Shayrat in April after concluding that Syrian aircraft, loaded with sarin gas, had departed from that airfield to attack Khan Sheikhoun.
The team from the joint UN-OPCW probe, known as the JIM, left for Damascus on Monday and were to go to the Shayrat airfield, said a Security Council diplomat, who asked not to be named.
Syria’s regime has denied any involvement and maintains it no longer possesses chemical weapons after a 2013 agreement under which it pledged to surrender them.
The JIM visit to Shayrat will address criticism from Russia that the panel is biased by refusing to accept Syria’s offer to visit the military base.
Some Western diplomats have expressed scepticism however, suggesting Damascus will use the visit to bolster its claim that the sarin gas was released by an accidental airstrike on a storage depot.
The joint investigation of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was set up in 2015 by the Security Council to determine who is behind chemical weapons use in Syria.
The JIM has already determined that Syrian regime forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that Islamic State militants used mustard gas in 2015.
The OPCW presented a report confirming sarin gas was used in the attack at Khan Sheikhoun earlier this year, but did not assign blame, leaving that determination to the JIM.
In total, OPCW is investigating as many as 45 suspected chemical attacks in Syria since mid-2016 including the recently-disclosed use of sarin on an opposition-held village on March 30.
The United States, France and Britain are facing a showdown with Russia over the fate of the gas attacks investigation when the JIM’s mandate comes up for renewal in the coming weeks.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley last week said allowing the JIM to continue its investigations of gas attacks in Syria should be a “top priority” for the Security Council. Continue reading.