Defying Russian and Assad regime attempts to undermine inspections of Syria’s chemical attacks, members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have backed the inspectors and expressed concern that the Assad regime is retaining chemical stocks.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the OPCW Executive, a series of states — including France, Canada, Netherlands, the UK, and the European Union — reiterated their condemnation of the dozens of confirmed chemical attacks since 2014.
UN and OPCW inspectors have attributed 33 chlorine and sarin attacks to the Assad regime, killing hundreds of civilians and wounding many more, and six mustard attacks to the Islamic State.
The member states expressed concern that the Assad regime may still possess chemical weapons, after inspectors discovered traces of what may be a byproduct of a nerve agent or poison gas at the regime’s main chemical facility in Barzeh near Damascus.
Canada’s envoy Sabine Nolke said the discovery adds to “growing evidence of deliberately false declarations by Syria, destruction of possible evidence, and the alarming likelihood that Syria continues to possess Schedule 1 chemicals”.
Growing evidence of Syria's continued possession of toxic chemicals lends credence to allegations of regime CW use. pic.twitter.com/RN6TeLiSaL
— Canada in OPCW (@CanadaOPCW) July 9, 2019
Following its sarin attacks near Damascus in August 2013, killing at least 1,400 people, the Assad regime committed to hand over all chemical stocks and dismantle facilities. The OPCW has confirmed that the regime gave up its declared stocks, but has repeatedly left open the possibility that undeclared chemicals were retained.
Supporting the Inspectors
Nolke also took on the Russian-regime propaganda and disinformation campaign to undermine OPCW inspectors.
We are watching with concern a growing coordinated effort to undermine this
organization. We have seen efforts from a number of actors to conduct smear campaigns against individuals in the TS [Technical Secretariat], circulate false information and attempt to discredit the OPCW as an institution….
We will not be distracted by efforts to draw attention away from the use of chemical
weapons, or the use of non-facts and non-science to call into question the scientific evidence and investigation into these crimes. We will continue to call out disinformation where we see it, and to counter it with the facts and the truth, which underpin rules-based international order.
In October 2017, Russia vetoed an extension of the OPCW mandate to assign blame for attacks, following attribution to the regime of an April 2017 sarin assault which killed about 90 people and injured hundreds in northwest Syria.
But Russian and regime concerns resurged in June 2018 when OPCW member states voted for a new body, the Investigations and Identification Team, which could attribute responsibility.
The concerns were compounded in March when an OPCW Fact-Finding Mission concluded that chlorine had been used in an April 2018 attack on Douma near Damascus, with an estimated 43 people killed. The findings opened the way for the IIT to carry out its first investigation.
So Russia and the regime, aided by pro-Assad bloggers and a “Working Group” of UK academics, have assailed the OPCW as a “politicized” body unable to carry out its duties.
In late May, OPCW Secretary General Fernando Arias summarized, “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.”
On Tuesday, the Danish delegation said attempts to discredit OPCW staff were “extremely concerning”.
Delivered #Denmarks statement at 91st Session of Executive Council of the @OPCW . Emphasis on accountability. Perpetrators in Syria must be held to account. Syrian regime must comply with its obligations to declare all. Full support to DG and the Technical Secretariat pic.twitter.com/15LVRSZ27u
— Jens-Otto Horslund (@JensOttoHorslun) July 9, 2019
Sweden and the European Union expressed “full confidence” in the work of the Fact Finding Mission, including its conclusions on the Douma attack. France emphasized that the OPCW “must be provided with the necessary means to carry out its missions, in particular the identification of the perpetrators of chemical attacks”.
Ensuring an Investigation
Canada’s Nolke noted the Assad regime’s efforts to block any IIT investigation of the Douma chlorine attack, including the denial of visas to inspectors.
The years may be passing, but as slow as the rule of law may be, no one should be under the illusion that the passage of time will weaken the desire for accountability. There is no waiting it out; those responsible will be identified and brought to justice. We call upon the Syrian Arab Republic to give the IIT full access to the sites, people,
documents, and materials that they require to make their assessment.
UK representative Peter Wilson said the denial was “completely unacceptable”: “Syria insists that it has no chemical weapons program — why then is it trying so hard to prevent those who have used chemical weapons on its territory from being identified?”
Assad regime and Russian State English-language sites ignored the meeting/’s support of inspectors, although Russia’s TASS posted the misleading headline, “OPCW Verifies Destruction of All Chemical Arsenals in Syria”, and noted, “Russia is against additional inspections in Syria to verify the destruction of chemical weapons. ”
However, their allies in the UK “Working Group” raged against the session, repeating their unsupported claims and disinformation and denouncing the “absurd argument” of the Canadian delegation.