SyriaFrance weighing military options after French lab confirms Syrian use of sarin gas

Published 5 June 2013

Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, said yesterday (Tuesday) that samples taken from Syria and tested in France confirm that sarin gas has been used by the Assad regime in several attacks in March and April. The U.K. Foreign Office said that samples from Syrian victims tested in British labs also confirmed the use of sarin. A UN investigative panel released its report yesterday, saying its experts had “reasonable grounds” to suspect small-scale use of toxic chemicals. Fabius said that France was not ruling out a military strike on the place where the gas is being stored.

Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, said yesterday (Tuesday) that samples taken from Syria and tested in France confirm that sarin gas has been used on several occasions. Fabius said that a French laboratory “proved the presence of sarin in the samples in our possession.” He said France “now is certain that sarin gas was used in Syria multiple times and in a localized way.”

Le Monde reports that the UN panel investigating chemical weapon use in the Syrian conflict has tested blood and urine samples from victims of four attacks by the Syrian army and air force:

  • Khan Al-Assal, near Aleppo, on 19 March
  • Uteibah, near Damascus, on 19 March
  • The neighborhood of Sheikh Makhsoud in Aleppo on 13 April
  • The city of Saraqeb on 29 April

Le Monde reports that the French lab examined samples from victims of a government helicopter attacks on Saraqeb on 29 April. Fabius did not elaborate on the findings, but his office reported that metabolized sarin was found in the urine of a female victim, and that elevated levels of regenerated (pure) sarin were found in the blood taken from two other victims (9.5 nanograms/milliliter).

The blood samples were taken from the three victims – one of them was already dead, the two others were in critical conditions — at a hospital at Idlib, and shipped to the Centre de Recherches du Bouchet, located in Vert-le-Petit in the Essonne department in northern France, on 4 May, arriving at the lab on 9 May.

The Bouchet lab used four different analytical techniques to analyze the samples. The complete results of the analysis are confidential, but lab experts told Le Monde that the presence of sarin in the blood is impossible to falsify or manipulate, unlike the presence of sarin in urine, which can be manipulated.

Fabius told France 2 TV that “aucun doute que c’est le régime qui est en cause” (without doubt it is the [Assad] regime which is involved” [in the attack]).

Fabius repeated the same message in an interview with Reuters, saying Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible for the use of the gas, and that France was not ruling out a military strike on the place where the gas is being stored.

It would be unacceptable that those guilty of these crimes benefit from impunity,” Fabius said

The United Kingdom also said that t tests it conducted in British labs on samples from Syria were positive for sarin.

Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mark Lyall Grant, said Britain has evidence suggesting a number of different chemical agents have been used, “sometimes including sarin, sometimes not.”

France and Britain both say they believe the Assad regime first used chemical weapons in an attack on Homs on 23 December 2012, but that French and British labs could not obtain physiological samples from victims of that attack.

Fox News reports that the French and British findings, based on samples taken from Syria, came hours after a UN investigative team said it had “reasonable grounds” to suspect small-scale use of toxic chemicals in at least four attacks in March and April.

The UN investigation was based on interviews with doctors and witnesses, not on physical evidence.

The UN investigative team was appointed by the Human Rights Council has been issuing periodic updates about suspected war crimes in Syria. Tuesday’s report dealt with chemical weapons, among a wide range of topics.

Separately, UN chief Ban Ki-moon appointed a UN team headed by Swedish chemical weapons experts Ake Sellstrom after the Syrian government asked for an investigation of a purported attack by rebels on 19 March on the village of Khan al-Assal, near the northern city of Aleppo.

Syria says that Syrian soldiers were killed in the incident, and the regime insisted that the UN probe be limited to that case.

Ban wants a broader investigation, including the 23 December incident in Homs. Britain and France have also pushed to widen Sellstrom’s mandate, sending Ban information on additional alleged incidents.

Fox news notes that such allegations are based on three types of information that can be obtained without having investigators go into Syria — amateur videos, witness accounts, and physiological samples.

Witnesses and doctors have been interviewed by Skype or after they have fled Syria. Labs in Turkey, Britain, and France have analyzed samples smuggled out of Syria or taken from suspected victims after they were hospitalized outside Syria.