Syria: Briefing on Alleged Chemical Weapons Attack in Douma
This afternoon (9 April), the Security Council will hold a meeting to discuss the alleged chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma, in Eastern Ghouta on 7 April. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and the Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Thomas Markram, will brief the Council.
Today’s briefing follows two separate requests to convene the Council. Nine Council members—Côte d’Ivoire, France, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Sweden, the UK and the US—called for an emergency meeting on the alleged attack. Russia had requested a meeting under the agenda item “Threats to international peace and security”. In the end, there was agreement to have one meeting this afternoon under the agenda item “Threats to international peace and security: the situation in the Middle East”. At the request of Sweden, there will be consultations after the meeting.
The 7 April attack in Douma resulted in the deaths of at least 85 people according to press reports. After successfully dividing rebel-held territory in Eastern Ghouta into three areas, the government has continued its military offensive to take control of this strategic area near Damascus. While two armed groups agreed to evacuate civilians and vacate the territory they held after persistent attacks, Jaish al-Islam, which controls Douma, was reluctant to surrender territory to the government. After the attack, Jaish al-Islam reportedly agreed to evacuate the area.
Council members are expected to stress the importance of ensuring swift access to Douma for the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is already conducting preliminary analysis of the incident, as well as the need for the parties to cooperate with the investigation. Council members are also expected to condemn other violations of international humanitarian law, particularly the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, the forced displacement of population, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure and health facilities.
While Council members are unified in condemning chemical weapons attacks and in stressing the need for a mechanism to hold those responsible accountable, they are expected to express well-known divisions regarding how to do so.
Council divisions resulted in the failure to renew the mandate of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which attributed responsibility for the use of chemical weapons, and have so far prevented the mandating of a new investigative mechanism. Some Council members are expected to echo Syria’s denial of responsibility for the attack. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this morning that the claims of an attack were a “provocation” designed to blame Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
On 23 January, Russia circulated a draft resolution that would establish a new investigation mechanism to replace the JIM, which expired in November 2017. Although Council members met twice to discuss the draft, Russia did not revise it to address any of the issues raised by other Council members before putting it in blue in early March. The draft has so far failed to receive support from a majority of Council members, who have raised concerns that it does not empower the proposed mechanism with the responsibility to assign accountability for the use of chemical weapons (instead leaving such decisions to the Council) and because it makes on-site visits as sine qua non for the reaching of conclusions. The US has held several meetings with Council members on an alternative draft and has called for negotiations on an updated version following the Council meeting this afternoon. Given current Council dynamics, it does not seem that either of these drafts could be easily adopted. Ahead of the meeting, Sweden has circulated draft elements aimed at finding common ground in the Council for an outcome in support of the FFM investigation.
One year after the chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun—and the US retaliatory air strike on the Shay’rat airbase—the prospect of unilateral action by member states without authorisation of the Security Council is likely to be raised at the meeting. At a 12 March briefing, US Ambassador Nikki Haley warned “any nation that is determined to impose its will through chemical attacks and inflicting human suffering” that the US “remains prepared to act if we must”. US President Donald Trump said this morning that he would make a decision on what action the US should take in the next 24 to 48 hours.