The United Nations has called an emergency meeting of the Security Council in New York on Wednesday following international news reports that the Syrian anti-government opposition forces have accused the Syrian military and President Bashar al-Assad of a chemical weapons attack that they claim has left many hundreds—including many children—dead on the outskirts of Damascus.
Though photographs and cell phone video were surfacing of dead bodies and the grisly aftermath of some kind of attack, few news outlets were able to independently verify details of what transpired. Reuters and Associated Press mostly put the numbers of victims in the hundreds, but said that the reports—and Free Syria Army's claim of nerve agents being deployed—could not be confirmed.
According to the New York Times:
The Syrian government vociferously denied mounting any chemical attack, and its ally, Russia, blamed Syrian rebels for launching a rocket with an unknown chemical agent that had caused civilian casualties, calling it a preplanned effort to accuse the government of President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons. A team of weapons investigators sent by the United Nations arrived in the country on Sunday to begin looking into several other reports of chemical weapons.
The total death toll remained unclear, although though the images, along with testimonies provided by antigovernment activists and medical personnel, indicated at least scores of victims, including men, women and children. Some opposition estimates went as high as 1,000.
As the AP notes in its reporting, the presence of the UN chemical weapons investigative team in the country "raises questions about why the regime — which called the claims of the attack Wednesday 'absolutely baseless' — would use chemical agents at this time."
As Al-Jazeera recently reported:
Assad's government and the rebels fighting to topple him each say the other side has used chemical weapons during the 28-month conflict.
Assad had refused to allow a broader U.N. investigation into allegations of chemical use, including charges that have been leveled by the United States, Britain and France.
[Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad] insisted that Syria "will never use chemical weapons against its people."
As the Security Council set to meet, Amnesty International was among those groups urging the Assad government to give UN investigators access to the alleged site of the chemical attack.
“The allegations of use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians," which Amnesty International acknowledged it could also not verify independently, "underscore the urgent need for the United Nations team currently in Syria to have a full mandate and unimpeded access to all locations to investigate these and any other incidents of alleged use of chemical weapons.”
“What would be the point of having a UN team of experts in the country if they are not allowed to access the sites of the alleged attacks, collect samples and investigate?”
The concern among those worried about the threat of Western military intervention, however, which they warn could spark an even wider regional war, remains focused on creating conditions where peace talks could take place. As the Free Syria Army is using the alleged use of chemical weapons as the latest opportunity to call for more arms or even the creation of a "no fly zone" over Syria, critics of that approach will be demanding that a full and proper investigation into what has happened take place.