What's In Blue

Posted Thu 5 Feb 2015

Syria: Chemical Weapons Consultations & OPCW Vote on Fact-Finding Reports

Tomorrow (6 February), UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane will brief Security Council members on the sixteenth monthly report (S/2015/56) on the implementation of resolution 2118, which required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons*.

Kane is expected to brief on the remaining tasks in the implementation of resolution 2118, such as reconciling the gaps in Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile and the destruction of 12 chemical weapons production facilities in Syria. The first facility was destroyed on 31 January, with the remaining facilities due to be destroyed by 30 June (the original deadline was 15 March 2014).

However, Council members expect that the major focus of tomorrow’s consultations will be the findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact finding mission on Syria’s use of chlorine bombs and the 4 February vote by the OPCW Executive Council at The Hague in relation to these reports.

The reports of the OPCW fact-finding mission concluded with “a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used as a weapon” and that there was evidence that chlorine had been consistently and repeatedly used in barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. While the fact-finding mission does not attribute blame, only the Syrian government has aerial capacity and only rebel-held areas were targeted. In the 2118 report that will be discussed tomorrow, the Secretary-General drew attention to the OPCW’s fact-finding mission and noted that its reports had been circulated to Council members on 30 December 2014. The P3, current Council members Jordan and Lithuania and then-Council members Australia, Luxembourg and the Republic of Korea sent the OPCW fact-finding mission reports to the Security Council in a letter (S/2014/955).

The transmission of the reports via a letter only happened after months of unsuccessful institutional haggling between the UN and the OPCW to bring the findings of the OPCW fact-finding mission formally to the Security Council’s attention. (The fact-finding mission was mandated by the OPCW, not the Security Council, meaning there was no direct reporting line back to the Security Council. The Secretary-General, who had not formally received the reports, had asked the OPCW Director-General to submit them to him. The Director-General declined, on the grounds that only a consensus decision by the OPCW Executive Council—which also includes China and Russia—would allow him to do so.)

The OPCW Executive Council met on 21 and 29 January to try and reach a decision on the reports of its fact-finding mission. At the 29 January meeting, Russia and the US put forward a consensus text that stated that the OPCW would include reports of the fact-finding mission in its 2118 reports to the Security Council, creating a reporting line back to the Security Council that had not previously existed. The text furthermore expressed serious concern at the findings that chlorine had been used as a weapon in Syria, condemned the use of chemical weapons (without attributing blame) and called for accountability.

The 41-member OPCW Executive Council operates almost exclusively by consensus and includes ten Security Council members—the P5 and Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria and Spain. Iran is also a member of the OPCW Executive Council and objected to the proposed Russia/US text at The Hague. Iran, which has historically supported the Syrian regime, particularly since the crisis began in 2011—argued that the work of the fact-finding mission is ongoing and therefore it was premature for the Executive Council to make any decision on the issue. The proposals that Iran then put forward were not acceptable to the US, moving the Executive Council to a rare vote on 4 February to adopt the text; 40 members voted in favour and only Iran voted against.

Council members expect tomorrow’s consultations may build momentum toward the Security Council’s deeper engagement on the issue of chlorine bombs. Some speculate that an endorsement of the 4 February OPCW decision may be an achievable outcome. Other members—recalling the US declaration at the 15 January Middle East open debate that the Council must stop the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons—expect that at some point in the near future the US will want to pursue a new resolution in the Security Council on the chemical weapons track. Nonetheless, the timing and substance of any such initiative remains unclear.

While the OPCW’s decision in The Hague is important, it’s unlikely to bridge the deep divisions within the UN Security Council over the Syrian government’s use of chlorine bombs. For over half a year Russia has argued that the OPCW, not the Security Council, would be the appropriate arena to address any alleged breaches of the Chemical Weapons Convention and has also expressed a strong preference to move the chemical weapons issue out of the Security Council and allow the OPCW to deal with remaining issues on a purely technical level. In this context, the fact that Russia agreed to a decision that established a reporting link between the OPCW and the Security Council is significant. However, the 4 February decision by the OPCW Executive Council also reinforces that the fact-finding mission cannot establish culpability for chemical weapons attacks and that the members of Executive Council held “diverse views” on the fact finding mission’s reports. This signals that any push by Council members for stronger measures against the Syrian regime, such as targeted sanctions, would likely continue to be blocked by Russia. Russia’s position aside, a few other Council members who would normally be supportive of Council follow-up of possible violations are wary of supporting a new initiative on the issue of chlorine bombs in the absence of stronger evidence of the Syrian regime’s violation of resolution 2118.

Looking ahead, Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is slated to brief on 17 February (postponed from 22 January). However, there has been some speculation among Council members that if he hasn’t made further progress on the political track his briefing may again be delayed.

On 25 February, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres will brief the Council on the humanitarian situation. Finally, the UK is planning an Arria-formula meeting with the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria later in the month, though a date had yet to be confirmed.

*After this story went to press, Russia requested to brief Council members under “any other business” following the Syria consultations. Russia wants to update Council members on the Moscow talks that took place in late January between the Syrian government and government-tolerated opposition groups. Russia is also expected to introduce a draft resolution regarding the financing of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham via illicit trade of oil and antiquities as well as ransom from kidnappings, echoing some of the November 2014 recommendations of the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida Monitoring Team to enhance the existing sanctions regime (S/2014/815).

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