Briefing on the final Sellström Report into Alleged Chemical Weapons Use in Syria
On Monday (16 December), Council members will be briefed in consultations by the Secretary-General on the final report (S/2013/735) of a UN team led by Ake Sellström that included the results of the investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in seven incidents. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane and Sellstrom will also participate to answer Council members’ questions. The General Assembly was briefed in a closed session on the report last Friday (13 December).
Council members were last briefed on 16 September on the results of the UN investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Ghouta on 21 August (S/2013/553). Although the UN inspectors’ mandate did not cover the attribution of blame for the attacks, many Council members, particularly the P3, are of the view that the report provided detailed information on delivery systems, which pointed to government culpability.
The final report that will be discussed tomorrow also includes further information related to the Ghouta incident, where the UN mission “collected clear and convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used…against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August 2013.”
In total there were 16 allegations, of which seven warranted further investigation. The final report includes results of the investigation into allegations against the opposition related to Khan al-Assal on 19 March, Bahhariyeh on 22 August, Jobar on 24 August and Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August and allegations against the regime related to Sheikh Maqsoud on 13 April, Saraqeb on 29 April and Ghouta on 21 August.
The results of the investigation into these remaining six allegations were less conclusive than the 21 August Ghouta incident. The Ghouta attack was also the only incident where an on-site investigation was able to take place almost immediately and results were conclusive due to the mission’s ability to collect its own samples and establish a verifiable chain of custody. The remaining six allegations were not subject to further investigation until the mission returned to Syria to conduct fact-finding activities between 25-29 September.
The report describes credible evidence of chemical weapons use in Ghouta and Khan al-Assal. The results for Saraqeb, Jobar and Ashrafiah Sahnaya suggest chemical weapons use but the investigation was unable to establish a link between the site of the alleged events with the people affected. The mission was unable to establish chemical weapons use in Sheikh Maqsoud and Bahhariyeh.
Aside from Ghouta, the investigative team was unable to take any independent environmental samples or examine any munitions. Futhermore, other than in Ghouta and Jobar, the team was unable to conduct any on-site visits. Evidence was provided by Russia in the Khan al-Assal incident, by the UK and France in the Saraqeb incident and by Syria in the Jobar incident. However, the chain of custody for the evidence could not be verified. The US provided information in relation to the Sheik Maqsoud allegation.
Biomedical samples were taken by the investigative team in relation to all of the incidents except Sheik Maqsoud. The results were negative for exposure to chemical agents in the Khan al-Assal, Bahhariyeh and Ashrafiah Sahnaya incidents. Despite the negative results for the biomedical samples, the team established credible evidence of chemical weapons use in the Khan al-Assal incident based on a review of hospital records and the absence of any alternative explanation for symptoms. In the Jobar and Saraqeb incidents the results tested positive for exposure. In the Jobar case, the government provided four blood samples, all positive for sarin exposure. The mission drew new blood samples of the same four people approximately one month later and only found one testing positive for sarin.
It seems during last Friday’s closed briefing to the General Assembly, Russia raised questions regarding the accuracy of the report, which many Council member expect will be a reoccurring issue in Monday’s briefing to Security Council members. P5 members France, Russia, the UK and the US all provided information to the investigative team regarding chemical weapons use and Council members expect they will defend their own findings even though a chain of custody could not be sufficiently established for Sellström’s team to rely on their submissions.
Despite the intentional lack of a mandate being granted to the investigative team to attribute blame for chemical weapons use, many Council members nevertheless expect ongoing divisions in the P5 to surface during tomorrow’s consultations over regime versus opposition responsibility for such attacks. In this regard, some Council members may be interested in discussing next steps and whether there is a way forward to establish responsibility for the attacks in question. However, in remarks to the press on 13 December, Sellström said a much more invasive forensic investigation would be required to properly establish attribution of responsibility. It seems unlikely that in the wake of the adoption of resolution 2118 requiring the verifiable destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention that such a new robust mandate would be forthcoming.