What's In Blue

Posted Wed 4 Nov 2020

Syria: Briefing and Consultations on Chemical Weapons Use

Tomorrow (5 November), Security Council members will hold a briefing via videoconference (VTC) on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, with High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu expected to brief. The meeting is the regular monthly meeting on the implementation of resolution 2118, which was adopted unanimously by the Council in 2013 and requires the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Closed VTC consultations are scheduled to follow the briefing. While the regular meetings on the use of chemical weapons are typically organised as a briefing in (closed) consultations, the September and October meetings were open sessions: the 10 September meeting was an open VTC, while the 5 October meeting was held in person.

In her briefing, Nakamitsu is likely to focus on the 26 October 2020 report (S/2020/1056) of Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director-General Fernando Arias on progress in the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme. Nakamitsu may offer details of the OPCW’s plans to conduct further inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) in 2020, if COVID-19 travel restrictions permit. According to the OPCW’s 26 October report, Syria “has yet to provide sufficient technical information or explanations” on a specific proscribed chemical that was detected during a third round of inspections at the Barzah facility.

Nakamitsu may discuss two recent reports of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, which was established in 2014 to “establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic”. Speaking to the Council last month, Nakamitsu briefly described the two reports, released on 2 October, both of which provide information on the FFM’s investigations into incidents of the alleged use of toxic chemicals as a weapon in Aleppo on 24 November 2018 and in Saraqib on 1 August 2016. The Director General’s 26 October report notes that in both cases, the FFM reported that the information obtained and the FFM’s analyses to date “did not allow it to establish whether or not chemicals were used as a weapon in the incident”. Council members may wish to seek clarity on the findings and how OPCW may seek to establish greater certitude on the issue.

Nakamitsu is also likely to update the Council on the status of a 20 July letter sent by the OPCW Director-General to Syria’s deputy foreign minister, which followed a 9 July decision, taken by a vote of the OPCW’s Executive Council, condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The Executive Council decision and subsequent OPCW letter are both in reference to the report of its Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which concluded that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Syria used chemical weapons in Ltamenah, Syria in March 2017”. The Executive Council’s decision requested that Syria declare to the OPCW not only where the chemical weapons used in the attacks were “developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored for delivery” but also “all of the chemical weapons it currently possesses”. The Technical Secretariat, the letter noted, “is ready to assist the government in the fulfilment of these obligations” within the 90-day period called for in the decision. Last month, Nakamitsu noted that it had yet to receive a response from Syria.

Finally, Nakamitsu is likely to reiterate her long-standing position, echoed during her 5 October briefing, that “there is an urgent need to not only identify but also hold accountable all those who have used chemical weapons in violation of international law”. This position has also been stated publicly by a number of Council members, including France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Dominican Republic, Niger and the Council’s elected European members, Belgium, Germany and Estonia.

As demonstrated during open meetings on the issue last month and in September, Council members are deeply divided in their views on who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria and are likely to reiterate these strongly opposing positions tomorrow. Several members who have consistently expressed support for the OPCW’s work are likely to emphasise their position that the OPCW’s work is credible and essential, as well as the need for accountability. A small minority of other members regularly calls into question the OPCW’s work, questioning its methodology. During last month’s Council meeting, Russia and China both decried what they described as the politicisation of the chemical weapons file. Russia highlighted its belief that the OPCW was “becom[ing] a tool to be used by a handful of Western countries to target specific countries” and that there is “a critical mass of questions for the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW and evidence of machinations and skullduggery in its reports”.

Recent procedural disputes also illustrate the wide divisions among Council members on the Syria chemical weapons issue. One current issue of disagreement is whether OPCW Director-General Arias should brief the Council, and in what format. Procedural disagreement also arose during the Council’s 5 October meeting on this file. In this case, Russia, as President of the Council in October, invited Nakamitsu and former OPCW Director-General José Bustani to brief. Several Council members objected to having Bustani as a briefer, arguing that his tenure as head of the OPCW pre-dated the use of chemical weapons in Syria and thus he could not provide relevant information. A procedural vote was taken on whether Bustani should speak, and failed. Nevertheless, Russian Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia, speaking in his national capacity, read Bustani’s statement to the Council. (For background, please see our November 2020 In Hindsight.)

Additional evidence of the substantive divisions on the Syria chemical weapons appeared during the 28 September Arria-formula meeting organised by Russia and China. This meeting featured several briefers who have publicly alleged that the OPCW withheld exculpatory evidence regarding the 7 April 2018 chemical weapons attacks on Douma. (On 1 March 2019, the FFM—whose mandate is “to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic” rather than identify the perpetrators—released its report on Douma, concluding that the FFM’s investigation provided “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place”.)