What's In Blue

Posted Tue 14 Apr 2020

Syria: Closed VTC Meeting on Chemical Weapons

Tomorrow (15 April), Security Council members will hold a closed VTC meeting with the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. While this is the monthly meeting on the implementation of resolution 2118, the session is likely to focus primarily on the first report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Investigation and Identification Team. That report was submitted to the Executive Council of the OPCW by its Director-General, Fernando Arias, and released publicly on 8 April. At the time of writing, the report has not been formally discussed by the Policy-Making Organs of the OPCW nor has it been presented by the Secretary-General to the Security Council. Nonetheless, its findings and conclusions are likely to receive attention from many Council members.

The OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) was established to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following a June 2018 decision of the Conference of State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The IIT was formed after the Council failed to renew the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) that it had established through resolution 2235 of 7 August 2015 “to identify those responsible” for the use of chemical weapons in Syria; three consecutive vetoes by Russia—which questioned the methodology employed by the JIM—led to its termination in late 2017.

The report highlights three separate incidents in March 2017 in Ltamenah, Syria. These incidents, which the IIT investigated between June 2019 and March 2020, included: the 24 March 2017 use of aerial bombs containing sarin, which affected at least 16 people in southern Ltamenah; the 25 March 2017 helicopter attack on the Ltamenah Hospital with a cylinder containing chlorine, affecting at least 30 people; and the 30 March 2017 use of an aerial bomb containing sarin in southern Ltamenah, affecting at least 60 people. Based on the information obtained, the IIT noted that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that the Syrian Air Force had conducted each of these attacks, arguing that “as the investigation progressed, and various hypotheses were considered, [it] gradually came to these conclusions as the only ones that could reasonably be reached from the information obtained, taken as a whole”.

The report notes, moreover, that military operations “of such a strategic nature as these three attacks” could only have occurred “pursuant to orders from the highest levels” of the Syrian Armed Forces”. However, the IIT was not able to reach a definitive conclusion on the chain of command nor did it obtain any information that the Syrian authorities had investigated or brought about prosecutions with regard to these incidents.

The report also expands on the process the IIT undertook to reach a conclusion on the basis of certainty of “reasonable grounds”, which included assessing information from the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria and from States Parties, as well as information acquired through interviews conducted by the IIT, the review of laboratory results, and analyses of munition remnants. Finally, the report describes challenges faced by the IIT, including the fact that it was not provided access to sites of the incidents or persons and information located in Syria, despite multiple requests.

As has often been the case on the use of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, Council members are likely to express strongly opposing positions regarding the conclusions put forward by the IIT.  Several members who have consistently expressed support for the OPCW’s work may emphasise their confidence in the report’s conclusions. A small minority of other members have questioned the IIT’s legitimacy. Russia, in particular, is likely to reiterate its scepticism about the report’s findings. In a 9 April statement by its foreign ministry, Russia criticised “misinformation” in the report’s findings and referred to “the questionable nature of the never-ending accusations against the Syrian authorities of using toxic chemicals and high-grade chemical warfare agents”. Some members may also question whether it is appropriate to address the report’s findings when it has not been formally presented to the Council. Council members may seek clarity on when the IIT’s report will be formally presented to the Council and subsequently formally discussed, including possibly receiving a briefing by OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias.

Another issue that is expected to feature in the discussion tomorrow is the OPCW’s concern regarding the Syrian government’s limited cooperation with the IIT and the IIT’s lack of access to the sites of the incidents. Some Council members may also want to raise issues around accountability for those identified as perpetrators of the chemical weapons attacks in Ltamenah, Syria.

As the most recent regular monthly Report by the Director-General of the OPCW raised the issue of COVID-19, Council members are also likely to want to learn more about the impact the pandemic is having on the work of the OPCW in Syria.