DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: After months of drawn-out negotiations, United Nations experts arrived in Damascus Sunday to begin their investigation into the purported use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.
As they did, fighting raged in Latakia province on Syria’s coastline, with the army pushing an advance and killing a Libyan jihadist rebel leader, according to activists.
The rebels, along with the U.S. and other Western powers, have accused President Bashar Assad’s regime of carrying out the alleged chemical attacks, while the Syrian government and Russia have blamed the opposition. Nearly six months after the weapons of mass destruction were first allegedly employed on the battlefield, definitive proof remains elusive.
The U.N. team is tasked with determining whether chemical weapons have been used in the conflict, and if so which ones. But the mission’s mandate does not extend to establishing who was responsible for an attack, which has led some observers to question the overall value of the probe.
The 20-member U.N. delegation, led by Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, checked into a five-star hotel upon arrival in central Damascus. Plainclothes police officers immediately whisked them away from a crush of reporters and cameramen waiting in the lobby.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the team would begin its work Monday. The investigators are expected to visit three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred: the village of Khan al-Assal just west of the embattled northern city of Aleppo and two other locations that have not been disclosed.
Ahead of the experts’ arrival, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the Associated Press that the government would offer the U.N. inspectors its full assistance.
“I assure you, on behalf of the Syrian Arab Republic, that we will fully cooperate with this team and provide it will all information we have and all facilities to reach a rational conclusion,” he said.
“Our basic target is for this team to find facts on ground, especially about what happened in Khan al-Assal, because we, as a government, do not know about any other cases other than the case where chemical weapons were used by terrorists there,” he added.
A spokesman for the Western-backed Syrian opposition’s military wing, Louay Moqdad, also welcomed the U.N. mission but was skeptical about how fruitful the probe would be.
“We hope that this delegation will be able to reach all areas where unconventional weapons have been used,” Moqdad said. “However, we’re absolutely sure that this regime that has done everything from changing signs with the names of areas to fabricating evidence with past delegations will do the same with this one. Therefore, we doubt they will be able to uncover truthful results.”
Moqdad said the rebels, if asked, would facilitate a visit by inspectors to opposition-held areas, and that no restrictions would be placed on their movements.
The Syrian government initially asked the U.N. to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 in Khan al-Assal, which was captured by the rebels last month. The government and rebels blame each other for the purported attack, which killed at least 30 people.
Speaking to the AP, Mekdad insisted that Syria “will never use chemical weapons against its people.”
In separate ground developments Sunday, Syrian regime forces deployed massive reinforcements to fight rebels in Latakia, which has strategic and symbolic significance because it is the ancestral home of Assad’s clan.
Rebels positioned in remote enclaves of Latakia’s mountains launched the “battle for the liberation of the Syrian coast” about two weeks ago.
Poorly equipped local fighters allied themselves with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), despite a history of poor relations.
Rami Abdel-Rahman of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army sent “massive reinforcements” to Latakia to fight the rebels and “bombed rebel areas heavily.”
State television said the army had reclaimed rebel positions in the province, including Kharata, Janzuriyeh, Baluta, Baruda and Hambushiyeh.
But according to Abdel-Rahman, “the army has only been able to secure the outskirts of some villages. The battles are ongoing and they are fierce.”
“Scores of foreign [jihadist] fighters are being killed in the Latakia fighting,” he told AFP.
Among them was a Libyan emir or local leader of ISIS, the Observatory said.
“Confirmed reports emerged of the killing of a Libyan ISIS emir while fighting in Jamusiyeh village,” said the Britain-based group.
The Syrian air force also struck several rebel positions across the country, it added. Among its targets were the Jabal al-Arbaeen area of the northwestern province of Idlib, Daraya and Zabadani near Damascus, and Deir al-Zor city in the east of Syria and a rebel area nearby.