Russian troops in Douma, Syria, April 16, 2018, days after a suspected Assad regime chemical attack
UPDATE 1530 GMT:
Professor Geoffrey Koblentz points out that the Douma chlorine attack is one of nine incidents listed for examination by the Investigations and Identification Team of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The list, posted in June, includes suspected sarin and chlorine attacks in northwest Syria between April 2014 and February 2018, as well as Douma.
Koblentz, who is Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, assesses that the IIT may begin with assessments of attribution for two sarin attacks and one chlorine assault on Lataminah in northern Hama Province in March 2017.
The Lataminah attacks occurred days before the Assad regime’s use of sarin on Khan Sheikhoun in neighboring Idlib Province, killing about 90 people and wounding hundreds.
Koblentz also explains that the IIT, which began its work in May, initially said it expected to report by the end of the year. On October 3, the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat wrote that the IIT is “in the process of preparing a first report on certain incidents under its consideration”.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: International inspectors will complete a full report on the April 2018 chemical attack in Douma, near Syria’s capital Damascus, “in the next few months”.
The inspectors of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are empowered to attribute blame, confirming whether the Assad regime carried out two chlorine assaults which killed 43 people.
OPCW head Fernando Arias gave the update to reporters on Wednesday, after briefing the UN Security Council on the status of the investigations of chemical attacks and the Assad regime’s stocks of chemical weapons:
Despite the successful destruction of more than 1,300 tons of Syria’s chemical weapons by the OPCW, the UN and more than 30 countries, two main issues require firm and continued commitment of the international community in Syria…to verify that Syria has fully declared its entire chemical weapons stockpiles, and secondly to investigate allegations of the use of toxic chemicals as weapons in Syria since 2013.
In March, the report of the OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission concluded there were “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place” on two buildings in Douma, the last city in the East Ghouta area holding out against a Russia-regime offensive.
The toxic gas from one chlorine canister funneled down a residential building, trapping and killing 43 people who were moving up from a basement where they were sheltering. Another cylinder, which landed in the bedroom of a second building, failed to release its chlorine.
While the evidence assembled by the FFM pointed to cylinders dropped by Assad regime helicopters, the inspectors did not have the mandate to assign responsibility. Instead — over the objections of the regime and its chief backer Russia — an Investigations and Identification Team was designated for the full assessment.
Before and after the FFM’s report, Russia and the regime have pursued an intense propaganda campaign to undermine the OPCW. They have been aided by pro-Assad activists, including the members of a UK-based “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and Med ia”.
Russia misrepresented an internal memorandum from the OPCW’s liaison in Damascus, Ian Henderson, as a rebuttal of the Fact Finding Mission. Henderson’s “executive summary”, purported to be the report of an engineering team, asserted that the canisters could not have been air-dropped.
Arias explained that the document, because it focused on attribution of responsiblity, was outside the mandate of the FFM and is part of the material being considered by the Investigations and Identifications Team.
The document was sent to the “Working Group” in May. It was sent in an e-mail by an unidentified person; however, the language in Henderson’s memo was echoed in Russian submissions to the OPCW in March and April.
In July, OPCW member-states pushed back the propaganda campaign, giving full backing to the 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.”
Last month the Courage Foundation, set up to support the imprisoned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, hosted an event in which a supposed OPCW “whistleblower” named “Alex” derided the FFM report. The event was given prominence by a statement from a panel including former OPCW Secretary General José Bustani.
However, the panel and journalists at the event did not verify the identity and claimed position of “Alex”. No copies of his supposed e-mails and documents were ever produced. Bustani was not present, and there was no evidence offered by the panel or any corroborating source.
33 Regime Chemical Attacks
The UN and OPCW, first allowed to investigate in Syria in 2014, have documented 33 chlorine and sarin attacks by the Assad regime since then. The incidents do not include the regime’s sarin assault on East and West Ghouta, killing at least 1,400 people, in August 2013.
In October 2017, the OPCW’s Joint Investigative Mechanism found that the regime had carried out the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, which killed about 90 people and injured hundreds. Russia soon used its veto in the UN Security Council to block the extension of the JIM.
But in June 2018, the national members of the OPCW overrode the opposition of Moscow and the regime to authorize OPCW inspectors to assign responsibility for attacks as well as establishing that a chemical weapon had been used.T The authorization put pressure on Russia and the regime, which completed the seizure of Douma and East Ghouta the day after the chlorine attacks, to divert any inspection that could cast blame.