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Damascus Has Not Fully Complied With UN-backed Chemical Weapons Probe

Damascus Has Not Fully Complied With UN-backed Chemical Weapons Probe
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Bassam Sabbagh

Bassam Sabbagh

U.N. Permanent Representative of Syria

"Syria is cooperating with OPCW and is keen to close the file as soon as possible."


On October 4, Bassam Sabbagh, the Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations, claimed during a U.N. Security Council briefing on Syria’s chemical weapons that his country had met all its obligations under the chemical weapons ban.

Sabbagh commented after U.N. Undersecretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, complained of “unaddressed discrepancies and insufficient cooperation” by the Syrian government. She said Syria’s declaration of compliance was inaccurate.

An Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact-finding mission has been investigating allegations that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons during the country’s civil war. Sabbagh claimed the mission used flawed investigative methods.

“Syria is cooperating with OPCW and is keen to close the file as soon as possible,” he said.

But that is false. Since the investigations began eight years ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad has blocked investigators and provided inaccurate information.

Damascus allegedly began using chemical weapons in 2012, targeting opposition-held neighborhoods in the cities of Homs and Aleppo. In August 2013, a large-scale attack targeting the Ghouta region outside Damascus reportedly took place, killing more than 1,000 civilians.

In September 2013, under pressure from its main ally Russia, the Syrian government signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.

In August 2014, the Assad government declared it had completely destroyed its chemical weapons arsenal. The OPCW continues to dispute the accuracy of that assertion, however.

Following the reported attack on Ghouta, a U.N. investigation team headed to inspect the targeted areas, but snipers prevented the team from entering.

Responding to that incident, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Assad regime of delaying the team for five days to cover up the evidence.

“At every turn, the Syrian regime has failed to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, using it only to stall and to stymie the important effort to bring to light what happened in Damascus in the dead of night,” Kerry said.

Following alleged chemical attacks in 2018 that killed 40 people and injured 100 in Douma, the Syrian government prevented OPCW investigators from entering the town. The OPCW said that when its team arrived at the first site in Douma, a large crowd gathered, and the team withdrew. At a second site, the OPCW said, the team was targeted by small arms fire and an explosion, forcing the investigators to return to Damascus.

Earlier this month, the OPCW said Damascus had refused to issue a visa to a member of its inspection team. It wasn’t the first time.

On July 2019, Kenneth Ward, the U.S. permanent representative to the OPCW, informed the chemical weapons watchdog that Syria refused a visa to the fact-finding mission's coordinator.

“Syria’s rejection of the Conference of the States Parties decision is baseless, and its obstructionist behavior undermines our work as States Parties to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention (“the Convention”) itself,” the OPCW said.

Damascus has declined to provide accurate data on its chemical weapons activities, the OPCW has said, or to answer questions about chemical traces found at several alleged attack locations.

For example, the OPCW asked Damascus not to move or relocate two cylinders connected to the 2018 attack in Douma. But Syria moved the cylinders and declared that it would continue to hold them, claiming they showed that terrorists had used chemical weapons.

“The Syrian National Authority did not notify the Secretariat that the cylinders had been moved to a new location until it reported their destruction,” the OPCW later said.

In May 2021, the OPCW said it didn’t receive a convincing explanation for a chemical warfare agent that had been collected in September 2020, adding that it “may imply undeclared production activities.” Damascus did not provide sufficient information regarding chemicals at the Barzeh facilities in Damascus, part of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center.

In April 2021, the OPCW blamed the Assad government for three chemical weapons attacks and asked the regime to provide details.

In June 2021, the chemical weapons watchdog told the U.N. Security Council that it had investigated 77 allegations of chemical weapons use by Syria and concluded that chemical weapons were likely or definitely used in 17 cases.

In April 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said its examination showed that the Syrian government was responsible for a majority of the 85 confirmed chemical weapons attacks since 2013.

“The data also show that the Syrian government has been largely undeterred by the efforts of the United Nations Security Council, the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and unilateral action by individual countries to enforce the prohibition on Syria’s use of chemical weapons,” HRW said.

Earlier this year, the OPCW suspended Syria’s rights and privileges under the chemical weapons convention until Syria fulfills all its requirements.