Bodies of victims in a building after a chlorine attack, Douma, Syria, April 7, 2018
A new inspections team has started work on assigning responsibility for use of chemical weapons in Syria, including the April 2018 chlorine attack that killed 43 people in Douma near Damascus.
Fernando Arias, the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said the Investigations and Identification Team has begun assessment of evidence:
[The team] has initiated its work to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic….[It will be] identifying and reporting on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons.
Despite the objections of the Assad regime and its Russian ally, OPCW member states authorized the IIT in June 2018, following Moscow’s blocking of its predecessor the Joint Investigative Mechanism.
Russia cast a Security Council veto in October 2017 to prevent an extension of the JIM’s mandate, after the inspectors found that the Assad regime carried out a sarin attack in northwest Syria in April 2017 which killed about 90 people and wounded hundreds.
The JIM also found the regime culpable for a series of chlorine attacks since 2014. UN inspectors have assessed that, during the same period, the Assad regime carried out 33 chemical attacks, while the Islamic State used mustard agent on six occasions.
Reaching a Conclusion in Douma
The IIT is likely to begin with Douma, where a building was struck with a cylinder containing chlorine on April 7, 2018. Witnesses said dozens of people, who had been sheltering in the basement, were killed as the chlorine funneled down through the building.
On March 1, the OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission issued its final report concluding that there were “reasonable grounds” that a “toxic chemical” had been used as a weapon.
The FFM does not have the mandate to assign responsibility, but other evidence and multiple sources indicate that an Assad regime helicopter dropped the cylinder which lodged in the roof of the building and released the chlorine. A second cylinder landed in another Douma building, but the chlorine canister was not detonated.
The chlorine was used at the end of a two-month offensive by Russia and the regime which killed many hundreds of civilians in the East Ghouta area near the Damascus. The day after the chemical attack, the opposition surrendered in Douma, the last city holding out. More than 50,000 people were then forcibly removed; those who remained are living under a strict security system and having to pledge loyalty to the regime.
Russia, the Assad regime, and their supporters have carried out a sustained propaganda and disinformation campaign to deny the chlorine attack or to claim that it was carried out by rebels to pin blame on the regime.
Moscow has declared that the OPCW Fact Finding Mission is “politicized”. A pro-Assad “Working Group” of UK academics has supported the propaganda with unsupported “briefing notes” seeking to undermine the OPCW.
In May, an unknown person gave the Working Group a memorandum by the OPCW’s liaison in Damascus, which went beyond the Fact Finding Mission report to claim that a regime helicopter could not have dropped the canister. The OPCW has said that, as the dissent is beyond the FFM’s mandate, it will be considered by the IIT.
Arias summarized last week, “We are attacked with misinformation [and] with proxies that produced reports to undermine an official report of the fact-finding mission about investigations in Syria.”
Arias said that the regime sent the OPCW a letter that it “would not issue a visa to the Coordinator of the IIT to visit Damascus”. As a result, a meeting scheduled for May in the Syrian capital was postponed.