NEW YORK: A Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped a chlorine bomb on the opposition-held town of Saraqib, on Feb. 4, 2018, an investigation team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has concluded.
Investigators found “reasonable grounds to believe” at least one cylinder landed in the eastern part of the town, releasing a cloud of toxic gas that covered a large area and affected 12 people.
The incident was the focus on Thursday of a Security Council meeting to discuss the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and its failure to comply with a UN resolution ordering the destruction of all such weapons. It was the 89th time the council has gathered to discuss the issue of chemical weapons in Syria.
Members were briefed by Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN’s under-secretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, on the implementation of Resolution 2118. It was unanimously adopted in September 2013 following a UN investigation that confirmed the use of chemical weapons against civilians in a Damascus suburb the previous month. Images of people, including children, suffocating after breathing in the nerve agent caused outrage worldwide.
The resolution called on the Syrian regime to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons by mid-2014, and set out punitive measures in the event of non-compliance. It banned the regime from using, developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling or retaining chemical weapons, or transferring them to other states or non-state actors.
In October 2013, Syria submitted to the OPCW a formal initial declaration about its chemical-weapons program, including a plan for the destruction of its stockpiles. Since then, however, the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team has been trying to resolve outstanding issues with the regime’s declaration.
Nakamitsu told the council the declaration still cannot be considered accurate and complete because of “identified gaps, and inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved.”
A new issue has been added to the list of 19 existing issues that remain outstanding because the Syrian government has failed to respond to a UN order to disclose the types and quantities of chemical agents produced or weaponized at various sites.
The new issue concerns the discovery by OPCW of a “neat chemical warfare agent” in samples collected from a former chemical weapons production facility. The Syrian government had not declared the production of this chemical agent, and the explanations it gave for its detection were described by Nakamitsu as “not sufficient to explain the results from the sample analysis.”
She said the number and nature of the outstanding issues is “concerning,” and added: “The confidence of the international community in the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program depends upon these issues being finalized.”
Nakamitsu urged the council to “unite on this issue” but her plea fell on deaf ears.
The Russian representative came to the defense of the Assad regime and again attempted to discredit the OPCW by saying its report is “replete with technical errors and does not stand up to any criticism,” and describing it as a “forgery” in which “free thinkers” who refused to take part were “intimated.”
Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative, also criticized Western countries for suspending the rights and privileges of Syria at the OPCW.
Last month, states that are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) suspended Syria’s OPCW membership because of its non-compliance with the treaty. The decision bars Syria from voting at CWC conferences or serving on the OPCW until it fulfills certain obligations, including declaring the chemical weapons it possesses and related production facilities, and resolving all outstanding issues with its initial declaration.
Human Rights Watch had said: “Syria’s use of chemical weapons is the biggest implementation and compliance crisis parties have faced since (the CWC came) into force in 1997.
“While this move (the Syrian suspension) would be largely symbolic, it is essential to remind the world of the extent and severity of war crimes by Syrian government forces.”
Polyanskiy said the unprecedented suspension was “a violation of norms by Western colleagues (and) another blow has been dealt to the OPCW’s credibility.” He added that it is part of an anti-Syria campaign that seeks to make Damascus an outcast in the OPCW.
“Do (Western countries) really expect that they will continue to do business as usual with Damascus?” he asked.
The rest of the council welcomed the “historic decision” by the Conference of the States Parties.
Richard Mills, the US deputy ambassador to the UN, said it “sends a clear and collective message that the use of chemical weapons has consequences, and repeated failures by Syria to adhere to its obligations will not be tolerated.”
He added: “It is time for the Assad regime to adhere to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Resolution 2118.”
Mills told his fellow council members that the findings of the investigation into the chlorine attack “should come as no surprise to those familiar with the abuses committed by the Assad regime against the Syrian people.”
Although the OPCW has attributed eight chemical weapons attacks to the regime, Mills said: “The United States assesses that the regime’s innumerable atrocities — some of which rise to the level of war crimes, crimes against humanity — include at least 50 chemical-weapons attacks since the conflict began.”
He accused the Assad regime of retaining sufficient supplies of chemicals that allow it to use sarin gas, to produce and deploy chlorine-based weapons, and to develop and produce other chemical weapons. The OPCW report, he said, is just the latest reminder of the regime’s flagrant disregard for the rule of law.
Mills also criticized Russia for holding an informal meeting last month to “impugn the OPCW and push a false narrative (of) a Western plot to attempt regime change in Damascus.”
“This Council and UN member states are not fooled by this Russian disinformation tactic,” he added, noting that the majority of council members refute the arguments by Russia and “its hand-selected presenters.”
Nicolas de Riviere, France’s permanent representative to the UN, who initiated the proposal to suspend Syria’s OPCW rights, said: “Let’s be clear, we are not pleased about having to suspend some rights and privileges of a state party. It is the flagrant and repeated violations of its international commitments that have left us with no choice.
“If Syria hopes to restore its rights and privileges, then it must comply with its international obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which it chose to adhere.”