Rejecting Claims of Non-Compliance, Damascus Representative Says Weapons’ Experts Distorting Facts to Match Narrative of United States, Western Allies
Nearly eight years after its adoption, much work remains to be done before Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) on Syria’s chemical weapons programme can be considered fully implemented, a senior United Nations disarmament official told the 15-member organ today during its monthly meeting on that issue.
Thomas Markram, Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, also said that the international community must stay focused on preventing the use — or threat of use — of chemical weapons, as he presented the ninety-fourth monthly report of the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) submitted pursuant to resolution 2118 (2013).
“Unity in the Security Council is required to re-establish the norm against chemical weapons,” he emphasized. “The use of these weapons must always be seen as a clear violation of a deeply held taboo. Accordingly, the identification and accountability of those responsible is imperative.”
Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic and visa concerns are hampering the return of OPCW experts to Syria, he said that due to identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies, the OPCW Technical Secretariat maintains that Syria’s declaration regarding the elimination of its chemical weapons programme still cannot be considered accurate or complete. Syria must, therefore, extend its full cooperation to resolve all outstanding issues and reassure the international community that it truly can no longer manufacture and use chemical weapons, he said.
Touching upon the most recent developments, he said that the Technical Secretariat stands ready to initiate preparations for an in-person meeting between OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias and Syria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Faisal Mekdad, to discuss the way forward. He also reviewed the case of two chlorine cylinders which Syria reported as having been destroyed during an attack on 8 July on a military facility 60 kilometres away from where the containers — related to a chemical weapon incident in Douma on 7 April 2018 — were supposed to be. In a note verbale on 15 July, the OPCW requested all relevant information about the movement of the two cylinders and any remains of their destruction.
In the ensuing debate, several Council members, noting how little progress is being made on the Syrian chemical weapons dossier, called upon Damascus to demonstrate greater transparency. They reiterated their call for the complete elimination of chemical weapons, voiced support for the OPCW’s work and echoed concerns about the fate of the two chlorine cylinders.
The United Kingdom’s representative said that Syria has repeatedly breached its international obligations. “Unfortunately, the Director-General’s monthly report provides further ongoing evidence of non-compliance,” she said, describing as unacceptable evidence that Syria moved the two cylinders while the OPCW was preparing to transport them to The Hague for further investigation.
Norway’s delegate, in the same vein, echoed the OPCW’s request for Syria to provide all relevant information regarding the movement, and any remains, of the two chlorine cylinders. “We cannot continue to allow the international norm against the use of chemical weapons to erode,” he said.
The Russian Federation’s representative said it was odd, to say the least, that the Director-General’s report focused more on the cylinders than on the 8 July air strike on the location where they were reportedly destroyed. The Council should consider who benefited from that attack, as Syria certainly did not. He went on to say that a dangerous trend towards the politicization of the OPCW to realize the geopolitical aspirations of certain States poses a serious threat to the Organisation’s credibility.
Kenya’s representative said: “We believe that an expeditious closure of investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria will allow the Council to support the Syrian people more meaningfully in their quest for peace and stability.”
Syria’s delegate, taking the floor towards the end of the meeting, rejected claims that his country is not cooperating with the OPCW, adding that the international community should focus more on chemical weapons falling into terrorist hands. He suggested that senior OPCW officials are distorting the facts to match a narrative put forward by the United States, France and the United Kingdom as they seek a pretext for aggression against Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Turning to the matter of the two cylinders and the alleged Douma incident, he said that they were destroyed in an air strike carried out by Israel on 8 June which the Director-General’s monthly report and the statements of several Council members chose to ignore. He added that Syria could not send the cylinders out of the country, as the OPCW had requested, as they were evidence in a judicial investigation into a terrorist incident. He also said that the OPCW is becoming a tool for some countries to use against others.
Also speaking today were representatives of the United States, Tunisia, Mexico, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ireland, Viet Nam, France, Estonia, China, India and Iran.
The meeting began at 10:01 a.m. and ended at 11:35 p.m.
THOMAS MARKRAM, Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, briefed the Council on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) regarding the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, and on the ninety-fourth report of the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (document S/2021/692), said that the COVID-19 pandemic is still impacting the ability of the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to deploy to Syria, although it stands ready to do so. The deployment to Syria of the Declaration Assessment Team for a twenty-fifth round of consultations remains postponed until further notice following the absence of a response from Damascus. Due to identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies, the Technical Secretariat still maintains that Syria’s declaration regarding its chemical weapons programme cannot be considered accurate or complete under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction. Syria must extend full cooperation to the Technical Secretariat to resolve all outstanding issues, he said, emphasizing that the international community’s confidence in the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme hinges on those issues being finalized.
He noted that the Director-General of the OPCW sent a letter to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of Syria, proposing an in-person meeting to discuss relevant developments and the way forward. With the Minister agreeing on 7 July to the proposal, the Technical Secretariat stands ready to engage with Syria to initiate preparations for that meeting. He added that on 9 July, Syria sent a note verbale to the Technical Secretariat reporting an attack the day before on a military facility which housed a declared former chemical weapons facility. The Technical Secretariat requested details, as the incident related to an outstanding issue recently opened by the Declaration Assessment Team. Syria also reported the destruction of two chlorine cylinders related to the chemical weapon incident that took place in Douma on 7 April 2018. Those cylinders had previously been stored and inspected at a site 60 kilometres from where they were reportedly deployed, he said, adding that the Secretariat had previously advised Syria not to open, move or alter those containers or their contents without its prior approval. In a note verbale on 15 July, the Secretariat requested all relevant information about the movement of the two cylinders and any remains of their destruction.
Turning to the work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, he said that it is studying all information related to allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria while also engaging with the Government and other States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention regarding “a variety of incidents”. Further deployments of the Fact-Finding Mission will be subject to the pandemic’s evolution. Following its second report in April 2021, the Investigation and Identification Team is continuing its investigations into incidents in which the Fact-Finding Mission has determined that chemical weapons were used or likely used in Syria, and it will issue further reports in due course. He also called on Syria to cooperate with the Technical Secretariat to complete the steps it must take to resume its rights and privileges under the Chemical Weapons Convention which were suspended by the Conference of the Parties on 21 April.
Nearly eight years after its adoption, work still needs to be done before Council resolution 2118 (2013) can be considered fully implemented, he said. Moreover, the international community must continue to focus on preventing the use or threat of use of chemical weapons. “Unity in the Security Council is required to re-establish the norm against chemical weapons,” he said. “The use of these weapons must always be seen as a clear violation of a deeply held taboo. Accordingly, the identification and accountability of those responsible is imperative.”
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (United States) said the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its people is appalling, including four attacks identified by the OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism. Sadly, the regime, supported by the Russian Federation, continues to ignore calls from the international community to identify and destroy its chemical weapons, while delaying and obstructing the investigators’ work. Syria must be held accountable, she said, expressing disappointment that the use of a weapon of mass destruction could be a source of political conflict in this Council. The OPCW Conference of State Parties condemned Syria’s actions and suspended its rights, which reflects that the use of chemical weapons has consequences. Given the voting trends of the OPCW, it is clear that the Russian Federation is failing to persuade States. The Security Council must condemn the violations, as there must never be impunity for parties using chemical weapons, she said.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) said that it is absurd to claim that Fernando Arias, Director-General of the OPCW, provided detailed answers when he briefed the Council in June. His answers contained so many inconsistencies and outright distortions that the Russian Federation had to circulate its own arguments as official Council documents. Drawing attention to some of the more egregious points, he emphasized that the Council has never delegated powers of attribution, as defined by the Charter of the United Nations, to either the OPCW or its Technical Secretariat. Nor has the Director-General clearly explained why the Technical Secretariat’s approach to Syria’s initial declaration regarding chemical weapons is much harsher than those concerning other countries such as Libya and Iraq. The final destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities was confirmed in 2016 by the OPCW Executive Council, he said, adding that the more cooperative Syria is, the more questions and criticism it faces.
It is odd, to say the least, that the Director-General’s report puts an emphasis on Syria moving the two cylinders without discussing the air strike that occurred on 8 June, he said. Even if Syria had relocated them within its territory, did that justify an act of aggression against a sovereignty State, he wondered. The Council should ask who benefited from the air strike. Certainly, the Syrians did not. Turning to Syria’s suspension of certain rights and privileges under the Chemical Weapons Convention, he said it was an unjust decision whose sole purpose was to make Damascus an outcast. Nevertheless, Syria remains open to dialogue with the Technical Secretariat, he said, emphasizing that any allegation of stalled dialogue is unfounded. He went on to say that a dangerous trend towards the politicization of the OPCW to realize the geopolitical aspirations of certain States poses a serious threat to the Organisation’s credibility. Going forward, the Russian Federation sees no cause for optimism, he added.
TAREK LADEB (Tunisia), expressing support for the OPCW mandate, anticipated that its forthcoming meeting can advance progress through a structured dialogue, with close cooperation and coordination with Syria, especially in light of pandemic-related restrictions. Syria must meet its contractual obligations, he said. Condemning all chemical weapons attacks, he said allegations of their use by any party must be investigated, and perpetrators must be held responsible. In this vein, the international community and the Security Council must coordinate efforts to identify those responsible with a view to guaranteeing international peace and security.
BARBARA WOODWARD (United Kingdom) said Syria has repeatedly breached its international obligations. “Unfortunately, the Director-General’s monthly report provides further ongoing evidence of non-compliance,” she said, noting that the ongoing lack of progress represents a threat to international peace and security. Among other things, the failure to grant visas to members of the Declaration Assessment Team is unacceptable, as is evidence that Syria moved two chlorine cylinders connected to the 2018 Douma attack while OPCW was in the process of transporting them to The Hague for further investigation. Describing that incident as a “highly concerning failure” by Syria to comply with an important OPCW request, she said it is also an instance of unauthorized interference with evidence central to an ongoing high-profile investigation.
JUAN RAMÓN DE LA FUENTE RAMIREZ (Mexico), raising concerns about evidence being relocated, called on Syria to provide details on damages to the cylinders in question and an explanation of what happened to their remains. He anticipated a fruitful meeting between the OPCW Director-General and the Government of Syria to re-establish trust between the parties. Given that the evaluation group continues to wait for information on outstanding matters, he said Syria must provide, among other things, details on substances found at a research station. Calling on Syria to meet all obligations as a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention and cooperate with the Identification and Investigation Team, he said outstanding requests must be filled. Meanwhile, the Security Council must have a more ongoing and direct interaction with the OPCW and the Identification and Investigation Team, he said.
ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) said that resolving the Syria chemical weapons issue requires unity among Council members on the OPCW’s work and goals. Otherwise, the lack of consensus will hinder accountability. All incidents of the use of chemical weapons must be given the same attention. The OPCW Technical Secretariat must adopt a more inclusive and rigorous approach to ensure that its conclusions are accepted by all. For its part, the Government of Syria should cooperate more with the OPCW on outstanding issues and to grant visas to its experts. Syria also needs to provide more information to the OPCW. He went on to say that allegations that terrorist groups might be in possession of chemical weapons must not be taken lightly. Particular attention must be paid to those claims, he said.
ISIS AZALEA MARIA GONSALVES (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) expressed concern at the ongoing lack of movement on this dossier. Undoubtedly, there are many diverging views, and trust deficits, but all parties must prioritize dialogue and technical consultations to chart a constructive way forward. The agreement between the OPCW and Syria to convene an in-person meeting is a positive step and hopefully preparations for it to take place will be finalized soon. She stressed the importance of pursuing consensus-based decisions to thwart further polarization and foster cooperation among States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, emphasizing that political differences ought to be set aside in favour of a commitment to work together for a world free of chemical weapons.
MICHAEL KAPKIAI KIBOINO (Kenya) said that every month, the Council considers this matter, but there is hardly ever any significant movement to talk about. He would, therefore, reiterate Kenya’s position that the use of chemical weapons by anyone anywhere is a clear violation of international law and a threat to international peace and security. “We believe that an expeditious closure of investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria will allow the Council to support the Syrian people more meaningfully in their quest for peace and stability.” For that to happen, there must be open and transparent cooperation and collaboration to resolve outstanding issues. He added that the Council should support efforts to strengthen the OPCW to ensure that the investigations are conducted comprehensively and conclusively, based on substantiated and reliable sources.
BRIAN PATRICK FLYNN (Ireland) said the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, at any time is “abhorrent and unacceptable”. Underscoring the essential role of the OPCW in addressing these weapons, he identified Syria’s lack of progress in resolving issues under its initial declaration as a serious concern, which raises the question of whether Syria is willing to cooperate meaningfully with the OPCW. “The issues are deeply troubling,” he said. The significant gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in its explanations cannot be simply dismissed. Syria’s failure to issue visas in a timely manner and grant full access to sites and documents related to its chemical weapons programme hampers the OPCW’s work. Syria must fulfil its legal obligations under the Convention and resolution 2118 (2013), cooperate fully with OPCW, resolve the serious issues with its declaration and ensure that its entire chemical weapons stocks are declared — and verifiably destroyed.
DINH QUY DANG (Viet Nam), unequivocally condemning chemical weapons use, underscored the need to fully respect the Chemical Weapons Convention. He reiterated support for the OPCW’s role in assisting States in this regard, underscoring the imperative that its work be carried out in a comprehensive, objective and impartial manner. He shared concerns over the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, including by armed groups, and called on the National Authority of Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat to deepen their technical cooperation in a most constructive and non-politicized manner. For its part, the international community should support such dialogue, as well as efforts aimed at realizing the full implementation of the Convention and resolution 2118 (2013). “In doing so, unity is a prerequisite,” he said.
NATHALIE BROADHURST ESTIVAL (France) said that the Syrian regime must swiftly provide the Technical Secretariat with precise information regarding the removal of two chlorine cylinders related to the Douma attacks. It is also up to the regime to take appropriate actions if it wishes to recover its rights and privileges under the Chemical Weapons Convention which were suspended by the Conference of the Parties in April. Hopefully, the upcoming meeting between the Director-General and the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Syria will help re-establish dialogue and overcome issues regarding the deployment of OPCW experts. She added that the use of chemical weapons cannot go unpunished. Legal proceedings will take place, including before national courts, to ensure justice for the victims.
ANDRE LIPAND (Estonia) said the OPCW Director-General’s report does not reflect much progress, expressing regret that the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team — which was to have taken place in May — is still on hold due to Syria’s lack of response. “The steps taken by the Syrian regime in addressing the identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in the initial declaration remain clearly unsatisfactory,” he said. Reiterating the importance of accountability, and a unified Council response to the outcomes of both the Joint Investigative Mechanism and the Investigation and Identification Team, he urged the 15-member organ to take “clear steps” to fulfil its mandate. He expressed Estonia’s full support for the OPCW and its Technical Secretariat and called on Syria’s regime to cooperate fully with the latter’s investigative mechanisms. Recalling that 20 August will mark one year since the poisoning of Alexei Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent, he called on the Russian Federation to disclose — fully and transparently — all circumstances around the incident and to inform the Council accordingly.
GENG SHUANG (China), highlighting that the current report has yet to provide a convincing response in terms of the chain of evidence and other details on the Syrian issue, called on the Technical Secretariat to use science and fact in its work and to adopt an impartial attitude as soon as possible. He welcomed such positive developments as the recent consensus on convening a meeting between Syria and the OPCW. Expressing serious concern about an attack by a certain State on a location in Douma that damaged evidence, he called on all parties to refrain from politicizing the issues and on the United Nations and the Technical Secretariat to respect multilateralism and advance progress on the Syrian dossier.
ODD INGE KVALHEIM (Norway) said that it is discouraging to note yet again that very little progress has been made to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria. That country must fulfil its obligations in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention and Council resolution 2118 (2013). He echoed the OPCW’s request for Syria to provide all relevant information regarding the movement, and any remains, of the two chlorine cylinders related to the Douma incident. “We cannot continue to allow the international norm against the use of chemical weapons to erode,” he said, emphasizing that Syria must fully cooperate with the OPCW and provide technical information or explanations to close the 20 outstanding issues.
T.S. TIRUMURTI (India), Council President for August, spoke in his national capacity, describing the Foreign Minister of Syria’s agreement to meet in person with the OPCW Director-General as a “step in the right direction” that will help address and clarify concerns over the Organisation’s mandated activities. The Chemical Weapons Convention is a unique, non-discriminatory disarmament instrument which serves as a model for the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. As such, any investigation into the use of chemical weapons must be impartial, credible and objective, following scrupulously the provisions and procedure embedded in the Convention. Reiterating his past warnings of the possibility that terrorists may gain access to chemical weapons, he stressed that the global community “cannot afford to ignore terrorist activities in Syria” and urged members to demonstrate the same unity they exhibited on Syria’s humanitarian file in adopting resolution 2585 (2020) in July.
Mr. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation), taking the floor a second time, said that, as expected, many Council members were putting aside the fact that a third party had destroyed the two cylinders during an air strike. Syria had no reason to seek the destruction of those cylinders. In fact, it had every reason to be concerned about their integrity if they were to be transferred to The Hague. Turning to Estonia’s statement, he said that the so-called poisoning of Mr. Navalny has long been a toxic issue, with Western colleagues failing to respond to the Russian Federation’s questions.
BASSAM SABBAGH (Syria) said that it is deplorable that Council meetings are being used as a platform to level false accusations against his country. Some Western countries totally ignore the fact that Syria voluntarily joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 and worked in full transparency to fulfil its obligations, leading to the total destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities. Clearly, those countries want to ignore Syria’s cooperation with the OPCW and its Technical Secretariat. Some technical aspects do remain unresolved, but some countries are using that fact to serve their political purposes. He noted that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates stated on 6 July that he is willing to meet with the OPCW’s Director-General in Damascus, on a date convenient to him, to exchange views, discuss relevant developments and agree on a way forward.
Syria fully rejects campaigns waged by some countries questioning its cooperation with the OPCW, he said, adding that those countries are levelling false accusations about its initial declaration regarding chemical weapons. Such weapons in the hands of terrorists is the real challenge, but Western countries are not interested in that. Groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), Al-Nusra Front and the White Helmets, among others, are increasingly trying to produce and use chemical weapons in Syria and then point the finger of blame at the Syrian armed forces. The highest officials in the OPCW are distorting facts to match a narrative put forward by the United States, France and the United Kingdom as they seek a pretext for aggression against Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Turning to the matter of the two cylinders and the alleged Douma incident, he said that they were destroyed in an air strike carried out by Israel on 8 June that the Director-General’s report and the statements of several Council members chose to ignore. OPCW investigators had requested that the cylinders be transferred to the Organisation’s headquarters, but they could not be sent out of Syria as they were pieces of evidence in a judicial investigation into an alleged incident in which terrorists used chemical weapons to kill civilians. Syria fulfilled its obligation to the Technical Secretariat to maintain the two cylinders in a safe place pending a technical assessment. He concluded by saying that the politicization of the OPCW is pushing it away from the technical nature of its mandate. Rather, it is becoming a tool for some countries to use against others. It must get back on the right track, he said.
ZAHRA ERSHADI (Iran) called for non-discriminatory implementation of the Convention and professionalism by the OPCW. “These are of extreme importance” in the application of the Convention to Syria, she said, noting that the issue has been politicized by a group of countries, which missed the opportunity to properly address relevant issues in recent years. She welcomed that the OPCW Director-General invited Syria’s Foreign Minister to communicate at a high level and acknowledged the latter’s readiness to meet at any time the Director-General deems appropriate. The goal would be to discuss working methods and agree on steps to be taken by Syria in the implementation of its Convention obligations, she clarified. Iran recognizes Syria’s serious efforts to implement its obligations as a State party to the Convention and acknowledges its cooperation with the OPCW despite restrictions posed by war, terrorist groups and COVID-19. She encouraged both sides to engage constructively in a high-level dialogue, whose success would require a calm political atmosphere — a responsibility of the international community. As a major victim of the most systematic use of chemical weapons in modern history, Iran condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of these weapons by anyone, anywhere under any circumstances, she said, adding that Israel’s regime must be compelled to immediately accede to the Convention.