Dzenan Sahovic 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.