What's In Blue

Posted Mon 6 Feb 2023

Syria (Chemical Weapons): Briefing and Consultations

Tomorrow morning (7 February), the Security Council is expected to hold an open briefing, followed by closed consultations, on the Syria chemical weapons track. The meeting is the regular monthly meeting on the implementation of resolution 2118 of 27 September 2013, which was adopted unanimously by the Council and requires the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu and Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fernando Arias are the anticipated briefers.

Tomorrow’s meeting will be the first time Arias briefs the Security Council since 3 June 2021; he is expected to update the Council on the findings of the third report of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), dated 27 January. 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 (CWC). 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 working methods of the JIM and the independence and professionalism of its staff—led to the mechanism’s termination in late 2017.

The IIT report provides the findings of the investigations conducted from January 2021 to December 2022 on the 7 April 2018 incident in Douma. It concludes that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that the Syrian Arab Air Forces were the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attack that took place that day. The report says that at least one Mi-8/17 helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Forces, departing from Dumayr air base, “dropped two yellow cylinders which hit two residential buildings” in a central area of the city, killing at least 43 people, including 17 women, nine boys, and ten girls. It further says that the IIT “thoroughly pursued” scenarios and lines of inquiry suggested by the Syrian authorities and other States Parties—including allegations by Syria and Russia that the incident had been “staged by terrorist armed groups”—but was unable to obtain concrete information supporting those allegations.

The Council’s long-standing divisions on the use of chemical weapons in Syria are likely to be reflected in Council members’ interventions at tomorrow’s meeting. Over the years, Council members have displayed starkly different views on a range of related issues, including responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the credibility of the OPCW’s work, and numerous procedural aspects of the OPCW’s decision-making bodies. While several members have consistently expressed support for the OPCW’s work, maintaining that it is credible and essential, other members, such as China and Russia, maintain that its work is biased and politicised.

On 27 January, high-level officials from the P3 Council members (France, the UK, the US) and Germany released a joint statement on the IIT’s third report. The statement condemned the “Syrian regime’s repeated use of these horrific weapons” and called on the Syrian authorities to comply with its obligations under the CWC and relevant Security Council resolutions. It further asserted that the Russian military police helped the Syrian government obstruct the OPCW’s access to the site of the incident and attempted to “sanitize the site”. The statement’s signatories commended the “independent, unbiased, and expert work of the OPCW staff” and reaffirmed their commitment to hold accountable perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria and elsewhere.

In a 30 January statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry challenged the findings of the IIT’s 27 January report, calling the 7 April 2018 incident a “staged chemical weapons attack” and claiming that “what happened in Douma was a brash falsification by the West”. According to a 28 January Reuters article, the Syrian Foreign Ministry also denied the findings of the IIT’s third report and asserted that it lacked any evidence. Arias is likely to respond to such criticisms.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Nakamitsu is expected to reiterate, as she has consistently, that gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies remain in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the OPCW. At the 5 January Council briefing on the Syria chemical weapons file, Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Adedeji Ebo expressed regret that “all efforts by the OPCW Technical Secretariat to organize the next round of consultations between the DAT [Declaration Assessment Team] and the Syrian National Authority continue to be unsuccessful”.

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