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 Ake Sellstrom, 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.