UN observers in Syria fired upon as report alleges US warplanes readying attack

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Monday, the convoy used by a United Nations (UN) investigation team while gathering evidence of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria of August 21, was fired upon by snipers.

No injuries were reported in the attack, but the UN says at least one vehicle was destroyed and several were shot at. It's not clear whether rebels or the Syrian army were responsible for the attack. The team left the scene and returned at a later time with a new vehicle.

"What I am told is that despite the very difficult circumstances, our team replaced their car and returned to the suburbs of Damascus to carry out their investigation," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement on Monday. Both the rebels and Syrian government are said to have been granted "safe" passage while performing their investigation which has to be completed in 14 days, not including any possible extensions.

The team arrived on August 18 and is investigating the scene of an alleged chemical weapons attack that occurred on August 21 in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus. Reports say anywhere between 100 and 1,300 people were killed in the attack which is being blamed on government forces, something they deny. "We hope that the results will clarify the issue and will help to dispel numerous speculations around the alleged use of the Syrian chemical weapons while simultaneously creating a positive background for the moves towards the start of the political process of settlement of the Syrian crisis," Aleksandr Lukashevich, Russia's foreign minister, said on August 22.

This isn't the first time a UN convoy has been targeted in Syria. In May 2012 a convoy was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while one of their human rights groups reported a Syrian military attack on civilians at a nearby funeral in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. Three Marked UN vehicles were damaged in the attack but no one was injured.

The latest attack on the UN comes as a US government official called their current investigation "too late to be credible." Following the alleged chemical attack on August 21, the Syrian army heavily bombed the area against what they called rebel strongholds. "The fact is that much of the evidence could have been destroyed by that artillery bombardment," said William Hague the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom on Sunday. The United States (U.S.) says the attacks are "corrupting" any evidence the team might have come in contact with.

Two reports by the British newspaper The Guardian suggest the U.S. might not wait for the team to finish their investigation. According to the reports, U.S. transport planes have been arriving within 100 miles of Syria in Cyprus. The Guardian cites sources which say U.S. Forces are "ready to go" in the event a strike on Syria is ordered.

"We are prepared, we have moved assets in place to be able to fulfil and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take, if he wishes to take any of the options he's asked for," said U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Tuesday.

According to the newspaper's report, commercial airline pilots claim to have observed C-130 transport planes visually and fighter jet formations by radar. The newspaper also claims residents say military activity has been increased. According to Wikileaks, the whistle blowing website, a document shows the U.S. would use Cyprus as the main base of operations to launch an airstrike against Syria. The document is part of a 2012 leak labeled the "Global Intelligence Files" which consists of emails from within the global intelligence firm Stratfor.

"The main base they would use is Cyprus, hands down. Brits and French would fly out of there. They kept stressing how much is stored at Cyprus and how much recce comes out of there," says part of an email in a communication by Stratfor employees. Recce is an abbreviation for reconnaissance.

Civilians began protesting against Assad in March of 2011. One of the first cities government forces began to attack in an effort to stop the protests was Homs. In July of that year, at least one person was killed and dozens injured when government forces opened fire on protesters. Late that month, government forces launched an offensive against protesters across the nation, resulting in around 100 deaths in the city of Hama and several dozen more in other parts of the country.