There are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Government is responsible for the use of weaponized chlorine gas against residents of the city of Douma in April 2018, the head of the international body responsible for overseeing the global endeavour to eliminate chemical weapons told the Security Council today, as members split on the validity of the investigation on which that conclusion was based.
Briefing first was Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, who commended the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for its professional and impartial efforts to uphold the global norm against the use of chemical armaments. Noting that OCPW submitted its third report on “Addressing the Threat from Chemical Weapon Use” on 27 January, she stressed: “There is an urgent need to not only identify, but to hold accountable, all those who would dare to use chemical weapons in violation of international law”.
Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW, then reported that, based on the analysis conducted by the OPCW investigation and identification team and presented in that report, “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that, on 7 April 2018, between 19:10 and 19:40 local time, at least one Syrian air force helicopter departed from Dumayr air base. Operating under the control of the Government’s “Tiger Forces”, it dropped two yellow cylinders, which hit two residential buildings in a civilian-populated area in Douma, located on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, releasing highly concentrated chlorine gas that killed 43 named individuals and affected dozens more.
Underlining that the Syrian people have been suffering from war for almost 12 years, he said that the “grim record of this conflict” includes the use of chemical weapons in that country both before and after its accession to the Convention in September 2013. He stressed that a common thread runs through the international community’s reactions to these well-documented, repeated uses — the need for an absolute prohibition of the use of chemical weapons. “The report is now in your hands,” he said, stating that it will be up to the United Nations, the OPCW and the international community to take any further steps deemed necessary.
Echoing much of the OPCW Director-General’s briefing was Santiago Oñate-Laborde, Coordinator of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team, who added that the Team engaged in several good-faith efforts to allow Syria to discharge its obligations under the Convention and Council resolution 2118 (2013). Pointing out that the country decided not to reply to such requests, he added that the team took note of the positions expressed by Syria and the Russian Federation regarding the Douma incident, including their view that the incident was staged by terrorists with the support of Western States. He then provided a detailed description of the investigation and affirmed that, based on the chemical and analytical data, it is possible to rule out the hypothesis that the incident was staged.
In the ensuing debate, many Council members spotlighted the Syrian Government’s responsibility for repeated chemical-weapons attacks, calling both for accountability and on Damascus to fully comply with its obligations under the Convention. Some questioned the frequency of the Council’s meetings on this subject, alternately suggesting the same be reconsidered or pointing out that OPCW’s third report is a reminder of the need to continue convening them. Members also diverged on the impartiality and objectivity of OPCW’s work, either commending the body’s professionalism or interrogating the legitimacy of its working methods. Speakers, however, were united in offering condolences to the people and Governments of Türkiye and Syria following the earthquake that recently struck both countries.
The representative of the United States, noting her country is supporting rescue and recovery efforts in this regard, pointed out that many of the same aid workers were helping civilians burned and injured by chemical weapons just years ago. Paying tribute to the victims, survivors and families of the horrific Douma attack, she joined other Council members in urging the organ not to overlook the role of Russian Federation forces in the city at the time of the attack.
Similarly, the speaker for France called on Moscow to stop covering for the Syrian regime, noting that Russian military police helped block the OPCW’s access to the site and attempted to clean up the scene of the crime. “No one is fooled,” he stressed, emphasizing that no amount of misinformation can hide the Syrian regime’s guilt. Echoing that, the United Kingdom’s representative noted “Russia’s usual barrage of lies, denials, disinformation and unfounded criticism of the OPCW”.
The representative of the Russian Federation, however, recalled that, on 14 April 2018, the United States, the United Kingdom and France delivered massive missile strikes against Syrian civilian and military facilities. He stressed that, if those States wanted to determine the truth, they would not have possibly destroyed important evidence. Stating that today’s meeting and briefings were “empty”, he said that if the Council should be discussing anything today, it is the decline of OPCW’s Technical Secretariat.
China’s representative also said that many countries — including his own — have objected to the Investigation and Identification Team’s working methods and procedures, which do not meet the standards of the State parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Stressing that dialogue and negotiation are the only ways to tackle Syria’s chemical-weapons programme, he said the Government of Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat should engage as soon as possible.
The representative of Ghana, also speaking for Gabon and Mozambique, agreed that enhanced cooperation between OPCW and the Syrian Authority would be useful to progress efforts to rid the world of the production, storage and use of chemical weapons. Urging those parties to expedite actions to prepare an early meeting, he also urged the Council to address these issues more constructively as the speedy elimination of Syria’s chemical-weapons programme is important to the common goal of maintaining international peace and security.
Mr. Arias, taking the floor a second time, in response to comments that today’s briefing was “empty”, pointed out that the Investigation and Identification Team’s report consists of 124 pages and is comprehensive, extensive and accurate. Moreover, the interventions of France, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Ecuador, Switzerland, Ghana, Brazil, China and the United States demonstrated that the meeting was a substantive one.
Meanwhile, the speaker for Syria said that many academics, independent military experts and specialists from OPCW provided a rigorous scientific analysis and professionally refuted the conclusions contained in the report of the fact-finding mission on the alleged incident in Douma. Underscoring his country’s non-recognition of the Investigation and Identification Team, he categorically rejected its reports and erroneous conclusions and said that Syria has cooperated openly and transparently with OPCW.
The representatives of Iran and Türkiye then offered a regional perspective, with the former pointing out that Western countries provided chemical weapons to former President of Iraq Saddam Hussein or supported their use against Iranians and are now manipulating the issue of such weapons in Syria’s case. While Iran’s representative also said that OPCW’s latest report was flawed, the representative of Türkiye emphasized that her country will continue to support United Nations and OPCW efforts to ensure accountability for the repeated use of chemical weapons in Syria. She added that, as a neighbouring country, Türkiye urges the Council to maintain this crucial item on its monthly calendar.
Source: UN Security Council