posted on Mon 4 Nov 2019 6:02 PM
Syria Chemical Weapons: Private Meeting with the OPCW Director-General

Tomorrow (5 November), the Security Council will be briefed in a private meeting by the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Fernando Arias, on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Holding this session as a private meeting is a departure from the norm, as this issue is usually discussed in consultations each month. Like consultations, a private meeting is closed to the public. Unlike consultations, however, a private meeting is considered a formal meeting of the Security Council and persons other than Council members and Secretariat officials can participate. It seems that Syria will participate in the meeting.

It appears that members appreciate the opportunity to interact directly with Arias on the OPCW’s work with respect to Syria. Some members will most likely be interested in hearing from him about next steps in the work of the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was established to identify perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria following a June 2018 decision of the Conference of State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The ITT was formed after the Council failed to renew the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) that it had established through resolution 2235 of 7 August 2015 to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria; three consecutive vetoes by Russia—which questioned the methodology employed by the JIM—led to its termination in late 2017.

A 3 October note by the OPCW Executive Council’s Technical Secretariat (EC-92/S/8) stated that the IIT had formulated “a non-exhaustive preliminary list of nine incidents it would focus on” and that it had in recent months “reached out to State Parties and other international, regional, and local actors in order to gather information and conduct investigations and analysis, as it considers necessary and appropriate”. Members may be interested in any further information that Arias may be able to provide on the IIT’s outreach in this regard. There could also be interest in knowing whether there is a timeline for the ITT to complete its first report.

While several members support the work of the IIT, a small minority have questioned its legitimacy. At last month’s consultations (11 October) on the Syria chemical weapons issue, one permanent member apparently expressed concern about the composition of the ITT, saying that it was not geographically balanced enough. Arias could address this issue if it is raised again.

Members are also likely to be interested in receiving an update from Arias on the recent activities of the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM). While not mandated to assign responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the FFM is responsible for determining the facts with respect to their alleged use.  Some members may be interested in the release dates of FFM reports on incidents that it has been investigating; the most recent report on the Douma incident of 7 April 2017 came out on 1 March (S/1731/2019). That report determined “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place”.

A recurring issue that is likely to be discussed tomorrow are efforts to address the gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies identified by the OPCW in Syria’s initial declaration. As in past meetings on the chemical weapons file, some members may raise concerns regarding the limited cooperation of Syria on these matters, while others may argue that Syria’s chemical weapons have been destroyed and that Syria has cooperated to the best of its ability.

Another issue that could be raised in the meeting is the allegation the Turkey used white phosphorous against the Kurds in their recent military operation in north-eastern Syria. Initially, on 18 October, the OPCW said that it was gathering information with respect to allegations of the use of chemical weapons. Subsequently, in early November, media reports indicated that the OPCW was not pursuing an investigation on this matter and that it had maintained that white phosphorous does not fall under its authority under the chemical weapons convention. One or more members could request information on the OPCW’s views on this issue, although it does not seem that this has been a pressing issue for Council members. Turkey has said that it did not use chemical weapons in its military campaign in north-eastern Syria, which it called “Operation Peace Spring”.