ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A report by U.N. weapons inspectors says there is clear and convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used in Syria on August 21, specifically the nerve agent sarin. The U.N. team was charged with investigating allegations of the attack on the Damascus suburb, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people. While the U.S. blames the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the report does not specifically say who was responsible. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam with the details.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The 41-page report is the first independent confirmation that chemical weapons were used in the attack in Syria in late August. The report painstakingly lays out the difficulty in planning the mission, reaching the site, collecting samples and speaking with survivors and medical personnel. After briefing the U.N. Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the report's findings are indisputable and make for some very chilling reading.
SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: 85 percent of the blood samples tested positive for sarin. A majority of the environmental samples confirmed the use of sarin. A majority of the rockets or rockets fragments recovered were found to be carrying sarin. The findings are beyond doubt.
NORTHAM: The inspection team was under pressure from the U.S., its allies and the U.N. itself to expedite its work. The secretary-general said, in the end, the reports showed the attack on the Damascus suburb was the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja 25 years ago. But while Ban and the weapons inspection team are unequivocal about the use of sarin, they are mum about who was responsible.
KI-MOON: It was the team's job to determine whether and to what extent chemical weapons were used, not who used them. It is for others to decide whether to pursue this matter further to determine responsibility.
NORTHAM: The new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said while the mandate of the chemical weapons inspection team was not to investigate culpability, it's clear the Syrian regime was behind the attack.
AMBASSADOR SAMANTHA POWER: But the technical details of the U.N. report make clear that only the regime could have carried out this large-scale chemical weapons attack.
NORTHAM: Power's comments were echoed by her British counterpart, Mark Lyall Grant. The release of the inspector's report comes after the Syrian government agreed to a U.S.-Russian plan to transfer and eventually destroy its chemical weapons arsenal. The U.S. and Russia deal calls for weapons inspectors to complete an initial review at Syria's chemical weapons storage site by November. Then, all stockpiled material and equipment is to be destroyed by June 2014.
Bryan Finley, a nonproliferation expert at The Stimson Center, says the nonpartisan report released today may help keep that agreement on track.
BRIAN FINLAY: I think the report makes clear that there is significant circumstantial evidence pointing to the complicity of the Syrian government in the attack that occurred at least on August 21. What I think is most important coming out of this is that it could potentially add some additional pressure to Russia to ensure that the Geneva agreement worked out over the weekend does have some teeth at the back end.
NORTHAM: The release of the report doesn't mean that the U.S. inspection team is finished in Syria. It was sent to the country before the August 21 attack to investigate three other smaller chemical weapons attacks. It still has yet to visit those sites. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the team has to wait until it receives an agreement by the Syrian government, but he hopes that comes soon.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.