posted on Mon 11 May 2020 8:41 PM
Syria: Informal Interactive Dialogue on Chemical Weapons

Tomorrow (12 May), Security Council members are expected to hold an Informal Interactive Dialogue (IID) on chemical weapons in Syria with Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director-General Fernando Arias, Coordinator of the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) Ambassador Santiago Oñate, and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu. Holding this session as an IID is a departure from the norm as the issue of chemical weapons in Syria is usually discussed in consultations each month; Arias also briefed Council members on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in a private meeting format on 5 November 2019. Tomorrow’s meeting was originally envisaged as a formal meeting on the implementation of resolution 2118, but the president of the Council this month—Estonia—decided instead to hold an IID, a closed, informal meeting format that allows for the participation of non-Council members. Syria has been invited to participate.

Tomorrow’s meeting is likely to focus on the first report of the OPCW IIT. Arias submitted that report to the Executive Council of the OPCW, and it was released publicly on 8 April. The Secretary-General transmitted it to the Security Council on 15 April. That same day, the Council held a closed VTC meeting with the High Representative Nakamitsu where the IIT report was apparently the primary subject of the discussion.

Although the meeting was closed, a number of Council members published their statements on their respective missions’ websites; the statements illustrated stark differences on the Council regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the work of the IIT. The Russian Federation maintained that it “had no doubts that [the IIT’s] main purpose would be to whitewash the illegal acts of aggression against Syria” and that the IIT “echo[ed] baseless accusations”. Other members, such as the UK and Estonia, underscored the need for accountability for those deemed responsible for the attacks, and Germany stated that “accountability is essential and impunity for these heinous crimes is not an option”. South Africa “took note” of the report and expressed its wish to work with the Executive Council of the OPCW and the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention to further examine the report.

The IIT 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 IIT 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 identify those responsible” 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.

The IIT report highlights three separate incidents in March 2017 in Ltamenah, Syria, which the IIT investigated between June 2019 and March 2020. At the release of the report on 8 April, Oñate stated that the:

“IIT has concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Ltamenah on 24 and 30 March 2017, and the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon on 25 March 2017 were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force. … Attacks of such a strategic nature would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command. Even if authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot.… In the end, the IIT was unable to identify any other plausible explanation”.

As has often been the case—and was again demonstrated during last month’s meeting—Council members are divided in their views on who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and are likely to express strongly opposing positions regarding the conclusions put forward by the IIT. Several members, who have consistently expressed support for the OPCW’s work, are likely to emphasise their confidence in the report’s conclusions and the IIT’s methodology and express the need for accountability for the perpetrators of the attacks. A small minority of other members has regularly questioned the IIT’s legitimacy, expressing concern about its composition (saying that it was not geographically balanced enough) and questioning its methodology. Arias and Oñate could address these issues as they may be raised again.

Council members are also likely to ask the briefers to further explain the report’s conclusions and how the IIT assessed information from the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria and from States Parties, as well as information acquired through interviews conducted by the IIT, the review of laboratory results, and analyses of munition remnants. Some members may also ask the briefers to detail the challenges faced by the IIT, including the fact that it was not provided access to sites of the incidents or persons and information located in Syria, despite multiple requests. Council members may also ask about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the work of the OPCW in Syria.