Syria: Briefing and Consultations on Chemical Weapons Use
Tomorrow (3 June), Security Council members will hold an in-person briefing on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, with Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director-General Fernando Arias expected to brief via videoconference (VTC) and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu expected to brief in person. 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 consultations are scheduled to follow the briefing.
Tomorrow’s meeting will be the first time Arias will brief the Council since 11 December 2020; he is likely to inform the Council that there has been little progress on the file since then. In December, Arias said that “to date, considering the gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved, the declaration submitted by Syria [to the OPCW] still cannot be considered accurate and complete”. He further elaborated on the Syrian government’s failure to respond to a letter he had sent to Syria’s deputy foreign minister on 20 July 2020. That letter outlined Syria’s obligations established by a 9 July decision of the OPCW Executive Council, condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons in Ltamenah, Syria, in March 2017. The 9 July OPCW decision requested Syria to complete a series of measures with respect to its chemical weapons programme within 90 days, including: declaring the specific facilities where the chemical weapons used in the March 2017 attacks were “developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored for delivery”; and declaring “all of the chemical weapons it currently possesses”. Arias is likely to echo the findings of his 92nd monthly report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which was submitted to the Council on 27 May and states that Syria “ha[s] not completed any of these measures”.
Arias is also expected to brief the Council on the findings of the second report of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was published on 12 April. The IIT was established to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following a June 2018 decision of the Conference of State Parties (CSP) to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It was formed after the Security Council failed to renew the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism, which the Council established through resolution 2235 of 7 August 2015 “to identify those responsible” for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The 12 April report focuses on the use of chlorine gas during an attack on Saraqib, Syria, on 4 February 2018. The IIT concluded that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that a Syrian air force helicopter dropped at least one cylinder of chlorine in the area, affecting at least 12 individuals. Arias may elaborate on the IIT’s findings, offering insights into its work and what follow-on steps the IIT may take to further its investigations.
Council members are also likely to be interested in Arias’ assessment of the 21 April OPCW CSP vote to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges within the organisation’s policy-making organs. While condemning the use of chemical weapons as reported by the IIT and Syria’s failure “to declare and destroy all of its chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities”, the 21 April decision also demands Syria’s full cooperation with the OPCW. It further emphasises that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons be held accountable and expresses support for “relevant investigatory entities established under the auspices of the United Nations”. The vote saw 87 members voting in favour of the measure and 15 members voting against, with 34 members abstaining. France submitted the draft CSP decision in November 2020 and was joined by several other current Security Council members, including Estonia, Ireland, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, in affirming the vote, while China and Russia voted against the measure and India, Kenya, Mexico, Tunisia and Viet Nam abstained. Speaking to the press on 22 April, Arias responded to the decision, saying that it “reiterated the international community’s ethical commitment to uphold the norm against these weapons”.
Arias will probably update on other activities of the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat, as well. As such, he may inform the Council about his 30 April letter to Damascus, which advised the Syrian government of the OPCW Secretariat’s intention to deploy members of its Declarations Assessment Team (DAT) to Syria from 18 May to 1 June 2021. However, according to the 92nd monthly report, the OPCW Secretariat “did not receive a confirmation within sufficient time to finalise the preparations for this deployment” and is still awaiting a response from the Syrian authorities about its rescheduling. Accessing Syria, Arias is also likely to note, has faced additional difficulties owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In his 27 May report to the Council, Arias said that the “COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the Secretariat’s ability to deploy” to Syria, but that it is prepared to deploy missions to the country “subject to the evolution of the pandemic”.
Nakamitsu is likely to limit the length of her intervention to allow the Council ample time to hear from Arias. Nonetheless, she may use her briefing to echo Arias in stating that Syria’s declarations to the OPCW “cannot be considered accurate and complete”.
The Council’s deep divisions on the use of chemical weapons in Syria are likely to be on display tomorrow. As demonstrated during its monthly open meetings on the issue since last September, Council members bring starkly different views on a range of issues, including who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the credibility of the work of the OPCW and numerous procedural aspects of the OPCW’s decision-making bodies. While several members have consistently expressed support for the OPCW’s work, calling it credible and essential, as well as the need for accountability, a small minority of other members regularly calls into question the OPCW’s work, including its methodology. On 16 April, Russia organised an Arria-formula meeting focussing on the Syria chemical weapons file, including what the concept note prepared for the meeting called the “politicised nature of OPCW investigations”. During the Council’s 6 May meeting on the issue, Russia accused the IIT of “com[ing] up with another propaganda product so as to inflate anti-Syrian sentiment”. Arias may wish to respond to these criticisms.