What's In Blue

Posted Wed 1 Apr 2015

Syria Chemical Weapons: New Chlorine Bomb Allegations

Tomorrow afternoon (2 April), UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane will brief Security Council members on the eighteenth monthly report (S/2015/211) on the implementation of resolution 2118, which required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Some members may be particularly interested in discussing the update in the report on the activities of the fact-finding mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the use of chlorine bombs in Syria.

Kane is also 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. To date, three facilities have been destroyed and another three are on track for destruction by 30 June. Council members may be interested in more details on the destruction timeline for the remaining six facilities given that the original deadline, March 2014, has not been met.

Council members also expect that the allegation that the Syrian regime used chlorine bombs in Sarmin on 16 March, killing a family of six, will also be raised during consultations. The alleged attack occurred just ten days after the Council adopted resolution 2209, which condemned the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine and threatened sanctions. Council members are also likely to want more information on how the OPCW’s fact-finding mission intends to investigate this incident. The report being discussed tomorrow said that the fact-finding mission was planning to visit Damascus to follow up on the government’s December 2014 claim that rebels had used chlorine in several incidents. While the report made no specific mention of any possible investigation of the Sarmin attack, media reports indicate that the OPCW intends for its fact-finding mission to investigate this claim as well as claims by the government.

Separately, new claims from the opposition that that the government used chlorine bombs in Idlib in late March may also be raised. (The countryside surrounding Idlib has been in opposition hands for some time but in late March a coalition of rebel groups, including Al-Nusra Front, captured the city of Idlib—located on the main highway linking Aleppo and Damascus—from government forces.)

Despite the adoption of resolution 2209 on 6 March, fundamental differences remain among Council members on next steps on the chemical weapons track.
The US views resolution 2209 as a final warning to Damascus before there are consequences for its use of chlorine bombs. On 19 March, the US said it was deeply disturbed by reports that Syria had again used chlorine as a weapon and that the US was considering its next steps. Many Council members anticipate that the US might share further intelligence on the incident during tomorrow’s consultations. Furthermore, in the Council, the US would likely be the member to initiate any response to the government’s use of chlorine bombs and other Council members are curious whether the US will pursue follow-up measures, such as the sanctions as threatened in resolutions 2118 and 2209. However, at press time no outcome was expected tomorrow.

Russia insists that the Council cannot apportion blame to Damascus since only the OPCW has the capacity to fully assess the situation. It has vehemently rebutted the findings of the OPCW fact-finding mission that concluded with a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used as a weapon in barrel bombs dropped from helicopters (only the government has aerial capacity). At the adoption of resolution 2209, Russia stated categorically that it did not accept the possible use of sanctions under Chapter VII without an attempt to prove the allegations are true. Other Council members have observed that this would be a difficult litmus test to meet prior to imposing sanctions since the OPCW fact-finding mission is specifically prohibited from attributing blame.

Looking ahead, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos will brief the Council at a 24 April ministerial-level meeting on the Syrian refugee crisis and the humanitarian impact on neighboring countries. On the political track, during last month’s humanitarian consultations, the UK suggested hearing more from Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in April but at the time of writing, it was unclear whether he would report back to Council members this month.

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