The scientist under Syria’s microscope

26 August 2013

Meet the neurobiologist-turned-weapons inspector who could stop — or start — a wider war.

CAIRO — On Monday morning, a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team left the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Damascus, and prepared to head to the site of what is alleged to be the worst chemical weapons attack in decades. They were led by AkeSellstrom, a Swedish scientist who finds himself transported from his classroom at Umea University into the middle of the worst conflict on the face of the planet.

Sellstrom and his team soon came face-to-face with the dangers of their mission: Snipers opened fire on their convoy as they approached the site, forcing them to turn back briefly. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime blamed the attack on the rebels in the area, while the Syrian opposition blamed militiamen loyal to the regime for opening fire.

Sellstrom, a round-faced Swede in his mid-60s, boasts three decades of experience conducting research into the effects of nerve agents on the human brain, and he previously served in top positions during the U.N. weapons inspection effort in Iraq. He eventually guided his team in Syria to the affected area, and footage filmed by residents showed the inspectors talking with local medical staff and examining those who were stricken by the onslaught. However, the attack meant that the team was unable to inspect a half-dozen key sites and had to condense its planned six-hour trip into 90 minutes. Moreover, the message delivered by the morning ambush was clear: Sellstrom and his team are in the crosshairs — both politically and literally — of powerful forces within Syria.

Sellstrom is the one wild card in what appears to be the march toward another U.S.-led military campaign in the Middle East. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear today that he holds the Assad regime responsible for the alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs: Kerry referred to the use of such weapons as a “moral obscenity” and described the regime’s invitation for inspectors to visit the site as “too late to be credible.”

Sellstrom’s findings could legitimize to the world a U.S. intervention in Syria — or they could provide ammunition for Washington’s enemies, who argue that the United States may once again be blundering into an Arab country based on scant information about weapons of mass destruction. It is an odd position for a man who is neither a diplomat nor a general, just a little-known scientist with an unusual — and politically explosive — specialty.

“I know Ake. He’s a great guy, and it’s a horrible position he’s in,” said Charles Duelfer, the former deputy chairman of the U.N. team that inspected Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for weapons of mass destruction after the Gulf War. “He’ll be under enormous pressure. How is he going to characterize what it is he finds? That is extremely difficult.”

In much the same way a basketball coach harass referees to gain an advantage for his team, Russia and the United States can be expected to pressure the inspectors to adopt their respective versions of events. Former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, for example, ignored the requests of U.N. weapons inspectors for more time to complete their mission in the run-up to the Iraq war, simply “advising” them to leave the country three days before the invasion started. Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for his part, “is more than happy to throw rocks at the inspectors, if it suits his purpose,” Duelfer said. “[He] wants to sustain as much ambiguity about [who conducted the attack] as possible.”

Navigating such political mine fields is not Sellstrom’s specialty. A highly respected scientist in his mid-60s, he holds a doctorate from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, where his thesis was titled “Gamma-aminobutyric acid transport in brain.” However, the primary challenges in conducting a successful chemical weapons inspection today are not scientific — they are political.

DzenanSahovic works with Sellstrom at the European CBRNE Center, a small research organization specializing in answering the needs of the European Union and the United Nations when it comes to dealing with chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear, and explosive material. Sahovic said that Sellstrom helped upgrade the U.N. guidelines and procedures for weapons inspections and even organized a 2009 scenario that simulated how an investigation might proceed.

“What we are talking about from our side is basically science–how to do this in a scientifically correct way,” Sahovic said. “As many situations clearly show, they’re much more politics than science. But that was not part of our work.”

Sahovic sees Sellstrom’s focus on the science rather than the politics as an advantage rather than a liability. Choosing a diplomat or a political figure as the leader of the U.N. team, he argued, would have subjected the effort to accusations of bias. By choosing an acknowledged expert in the field, it highlights that “this is an independent, scientific investigation.”

There remains, however, a looming question of what Sellstrom’s team could find that will influence the international debate over Syria. All parties involved now admit that a chemical weapons attack took place in Damascus: Russia and the Syrian regime have suggested that the rebels carried out the attack, while the United States and Britain have accused Assad of being responsible. Under the mandate worked out between the Assad regime and the U.N., moreover, the inspection team has no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack. Can Sellstrom release any information that strengthens or weakens either side’s argument?

Many believe the answer is yes. While Sellstrom cannot explicitly say whether the Assad regime or the rebels conducted the attack, he can release information that would strongly implicate one party or the other — allowing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to make the actual accusation.

The Syrian regime has been developing chemical weapons for decades; it has been Damascus’s strategy for offsetting the threat posed by the Israeli nuclear program. As a result, Duelfer said, the regime has acquired some extremely sophisticated systems for maintaining its stockpiles — adding chemical stabilizers to its toxic agents, for example, and creating binary munitions that mix the precursors to create a toxic agent after the rocket or mortar has been fired. “[I]f they find little bits of rockets or artillery shells with that degree of sophistication, it will point toward the Syrian military,” Duelfer said.

Meanwhile, if the toxic agent used in Damascus is found not to have included chemical stabilizers and the delivery method is more rudimentary, that may tilt the argument toward the side of Russia and the Assad regime.

Magnus Norell, a senior policy advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy, agrees that it might be possible to unravel the chain of events in this way, but he cautions that there will be no “slam dunk” findings by Sellstrom’s team. The fact that the inspection site is an ongoing war zone not only threatens the inspectors’ safety, but also could be destroying evidence.  “The artillery bombardments by government forces [in the eastern Damascus suburbs] during the last few days may have destroyed any chance of establishing, beyond reasonable doubt, what happened,” Norell said.

Assad and his allies will seize on any ambiguity, Norell believes, to condemn a military intervention. “The challenge is that, after a military strike — what then? If Assad stays, as he will, nothing will really have changed, except that the chances for any compromises will be gone,” Norell argues. “For a strike to have the effect of really threatening Assad, a much more robust military response will be necessary, and that is hardly an option right now.”

For Sellstrom, however, such questions go beyond what he came to Damascus to accomplish. His mission will be a success if he can visit the site of the attack and take the samples that he came to acquire — and avoid getting shot in the process.

David Kenner.