BEIRUT - Before the U.S.-Russia agreement was crafted last month to rid Syria of chemical weapons, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry publicly downplayed the significance of the U.N. investigative team on the ground in Syria. The team, headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, included a sizable contingent of experts from the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, which on Friday was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
On Aug. 30, as he laid out a grim case for airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for Damascus’ alleged use of chemical weapons, Kerry said that the access for U.N. inspectors on the scene was “restricted and controlled”—allegations never made publicly by the U.N. or the disarmament experts in Syria. Each side in the Syrian conflict blamed the other for a sniper attack on the U.N. team that left at least one U.N. vehicle disabled but did not result in any injuries.
And, while acknowledging the courage of “the brave inspectors who endured regime gunfire and obstructions to their investigation,” Kerry made it clear that U.S. war planners had no intention of waiting for the conclusions of the inspectors’ report before launching missile strikes against Syria.
“The U.N. can’t tell us anything that we haven’t shared with you this afternoon or that we don’t already know,” Kerry said after laying out the case for airstrikes against Syria, based in part on remote U.S. intelligence-gathering techniques. “And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act as it should.”
But just 10 days later, while in London, Kerry made his now-celebrated remarks—whether the comments were off the cuff or not remains unclear—that set the stage for the landmark Syrian chemical disarmament accord.
Asked in London on Sept. 9 if there was anything Syrian President Bashar Assad could do to avert a U.S. strike on Syria, Kerry replied: “Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Within hours, however, there emerged the outlines of U.S.-Russia deal under U.N. auspices that would ultimately seek to accomplish exactly what Kerry said could not be done—and would bring to international prominence the role of the Hague-based chemical weapons agency.
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