BEIRUT – The trajectory of the rockets that delivered the nerve agent sarin in last month's deadly attack is among the key evidence linking elite Syrian troops based in the mountains overlooking Damascus to the strike that killed hundreds of people, diplomats and human rights officials said Wednesday.
The Aug. 21 attack precipitated the crisis over Syria's chemical weapons. The U.S. threatened a military strike against Syria, which led to a plan negotiated by Moscow and Washington under which the regime of President Bashar Assad is to abandon its chemical weapons stockpile.
A U.N. report released Monday confirmed that chemical weapons were used in the attack but did not ascribe blame.
The United States, Britain and France cited evidence in the report to declare Assad's government responsible. Russia called the report "one-sided" and says it has "serious reason to suggest that this was a provocation" by the rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria's civil war.
The report, however, provided data that suggested the chemical-loaded rockets that hit two Damascus suburbs were fired from the northwest, indicating they came from nearby mountains where the Syrian military is known to have major bases.
Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus, is home to one of Assad's three residences and is widely used by elite forces to shell suburbs of the capital. The powerful Republican Guard and army's Fourth Division, headed by Assad's younger brother, Maher, has bases there.
A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because some of this material was from private meetings, said: "It was 100 percent clear that the regime used chemical weapons."
The diplomat cited five key details, including the scale of the attack, the quality of the sarin, the type of rockets, the warheads used and the rockets' trajectory.
A Human Rights Watch report also said the presumed flight path of the rockets cited by the U.N. inspectors' report led back to a Republican Guard base in Mount Qassioun.
"Connecting the dots provided by these numbers allows us to see for ourselves where the rockets were likely launched from and who was responsible," said Josh Lyons, a satellite imagery analyst for the New York-based group. But, he added, the evidence was "not conclusive."
The HRW report matched what several experts concluded after reading the U.N. report. The U.N. inspectors were not instructed to assess which side was responsible for the attack.
"While the U.N. stuck within its mandate, it has provided enough data to provide an overwhelming case that this had to be government-sponsored," said Anthony Cordesman, national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The inspectors described the rockets used to disperse the sarin as a variant of an M14 artillery rocket, with either an original or an improvised warhead, which the rebels are not known to have.
There is no conceivable way to prove the rebels could not have gotten them, Cordesman said, but he added that the modification of the rockets pointed to the regime.
The U.N. diplomat in New York pointed to citations in the U.N. report that reveal the scale of the attack: The rockets had a payload of about 350 liters of sarin, including sophisticated stabilizing elements that match those known to be in the Syrian stockpile.
This makes it "virtually impossible" that it came from any source other than the Syrian government," the diplomat said.
The diplomat added that the trajectory points directly at known Syrian military bases. "There isn't a shred of evidence in the other direction," he said.
Syrian legislator Issam Khalil denied the Human Rights Watch report.
"These rockets were fired by terrorists in order to draw a military act against Syria," Khalil told The Associated Press in Damascus. "We believe that a fair, transparent and objective international investigation is the only way to specify that side responsible for firing these rockets."
Russia has been Syria's main ally since the conflict began in March 2011, blocking proposed U.N. resolutions that would impose sanctions on Assad's regime and opposing an attempt to authorize the use of force if Syria does not abide by the agreement struck Sept. 14 between Moscow and Washington to rid Damascus of its chemical weapons stockpile.
According to a top Russian diplomat and a Syrian official, Damascus has turned over materials to Russia that aim to show the chemical weapons attack was carried out by the rebels.
The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying that Syria told Russian officials the material it handed over shows "rebels participating in the chemical attack," but that Moscow has not yet drawn any conclusions.
Ryabkov also told pro-Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today that Russia has submitted to the U.N. Security Council what Moscow called credible evidence that suggests the Syrian government did not fire the chemical weapons.
"We are unhappy about this (U.N.) report, we think that the report was distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it was built is insufficient," Ryabkov said.
The reports did not specify the nature of the new material turned over by Syria to Russia, which Ryabkov said would be closely analyzed.
According to ITAR-Tass, Ryabkov said Russia was "inclined to treat with great seriousness the material from the Syrian side about the involvement of the rebels in the chemical attack of Aug. 21."
The chief U.N. chemical weapons inspector said his team will return to Syria "within weeks" to complete the investigation it had started before the Aug. 21 attack and other alleged uses of chemical weapons in the country.
Ake Sellstrom told The Associated Press the team will evaluate "allegations of chemical weapons use from both sides, but perhaps mainly from the Syrian government's side."
He said he doesn't currently think there is a need for more investigations of the Aug. 21 attacks, but said "if we receive any additional information it will be included next time we report."
Assad on Wednesday received a U.S. delegation of former members of Congress and anti-war activists, including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
In the contested northern city of Aleppo, a group of volunteers learned how to deal with chemical weapons attacks in a drill inside a school. Their teacher, Mohammad Zayed, a 21-year-old former chemistry student, helped them put on gas masks and protective suits.
He also described the effects of various chemical weapons and how to help people with the limited resources available.
Three gas masks and 24 protective suits were given to them after rebels gained control of a military base belonging to forces loyal to Assad. The volunteers are distributing leaflets to residents on how to react to an attack.