What's In Blue

Posted Tue 5 Mar 2019

Syria: Chemical Weapons Consultations

Tomorrow (6 March), Security Council members will receive a briefing in consultations from the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The meeting is expected to focus on the 1 March report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) regarding the chemical weapons attack that took place in Douma (Eastern Ghouta) on 7 April 2018.

The report concludes that the evaluation and analysis of all the information gathered by the FFM “provide reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place” and that “the toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine”. Although chlorine decomposes rapidly in the environment, the gas itself or its decomposition react with a variety of other chemicals in the environment, including organic materials and metals, providing long-lasting chemical signatures of chlorine exposure. These have proven critical as the FFM team only reached Douma two weeks after the incident and did not examine the bodies of the dead, which by that time had already been buried.

The relevance of the FFM report is that it sheds light on a critical moment in the government’s offensive over rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, Syrian government divisions among Council members. In the aftermath of the attack, the US, along with France and the UK, carried out more than 100 airstrikes against Syrian military facilities that had reportedly been involved in the storage and production of chemical weapons. At the time of the 7 April incident, Russia denied that chemical weapons had been used at all and blamed Western intelligence services for having staged a provocation. The report concludes that two facilities in Douma that the Syrian government claims were used by the opposition to produce chemical weapons were not used for their manufacture

Although the FFM is not mandated to assign responsibility, the report establishes that it is possible that two yellow industrial cylinders “were the source of the substances containing reactive chlorine” that caused structural damage in two locations (one of the cylinders was found in a rooftop terrace and the other passed through the ceiling and hit the floor of a different building). The report is consistent with a 23 July 2018 OPCW interim report that concludes that while no nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, chlorinated organic chemicals had been found in samples from two locations, along with explosive residues.

Three Russian vetoes led to the termination in late 2017 of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which had been mandated to assign responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Following the demise of the JIM, and with continuing divisions in the first half of 2018 in the Council on Syria, discussions regarding accountability for the use of chemical weapons shifted to the OPCW. In June 2018, the Conference of State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention mandated a new team within the OPCW to help identify those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It is unclear if Council members will wait until the new team in The Hague issues its conclusions on the Douma attack or if it will take steps sooner to promote accountability.

As has been the case in the past, Council members are likely to express sharply contrasting positions regarding the analysis and conclusions put forward by the FFM. Another issue that is expected to feature in the discussion tomorrow is the OPCW’s longstanding concern regarding the Syrian government’s limited cooperation in addressing the gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies identified in the initial declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Sign up for What's In Blue emails