The Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria and the Need for Unity Against Them

The Deputy Director-General of the OPCW, Mr Hamid Ali Rao, the Director-General of the OPCW, H.E. Mr Ahmet Üzümcü, and the CSP Chairperson, H.E. Ambassador Abdelouahab Bellouki of Morocco, at the Fourth Special Session of the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention – June 2018.

By Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü

I watched a few days ago, via webcast, the proceedings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Conference of States Parties (CSP) held in The Hague. The main issue was, again, the use of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria. The CSP voted a draft decision submitted by western countries in line with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), on a measure foreseen against Syria, a member that fails to comply with its obligations.

The draft decision, which was to suspend some rights and privileges, seemed proportionate, even mild considering the issues at stake. States Parties made statements before the voting and as explanations of votes after it. The decision was adopted by the votes of eighty-seven countries, thirty-four abstained and fifteen voted against. Some representatives left the room before the voting began.

I have observed that the divisions in the OPCW membership over Syria-related issues, which started during my term as Director General, have become worse. I am saddened and have decided to refresh the memories of all concerned.

I remember my first reaction when the United States and the Russian Federation shared with me in September 2013 the draft decision on the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, the text of which was later adopted unanimously by the OPCW Executive Council (EC) and endorsed the same day by the UN Security Council (resolution 2118). I was at the time not comfortable with a decision inviting a government to become a member with equal rights while it was accused of using sarin, a deadly nerve agent, less than a month before, against its own people. It was estimated that 1,400 people, including women and children, perished in a couple of hours in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. The Syrian Government denied any responsibility but the use of sarin was confirmed by a mission under the UN Secretary General mechanism and composed mainly of OPCW inspectors. Nevertheless, I was assured by the proponents of the decision on the elimination of chemical weapons that this would serve the interests of the Syrian people since everything would be destroyed and consequently any further use of chemical weapons would be prevented.

In retrospect, I think that my initial reservations were correct and it was too much of a leap of faith to jump from the “red line” trigger (U.S. President Obama’s warning that Syrian CW use would be met with consequences) to membership of the OPCW. Let me explain. I believe a progressive approach should have been adopted under which Syria should have been asked to wait until it had gotten rid of all its CW stockpiles and production capacity in a verifiable manner, and then a reasonable and quiet period allowed to elapse without any reported use of CWs. Although the CWC does not provide a basis for such a transitional arrangement, it could have been executed through a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution. But the Director General had little influence in decision-making, for that remains the prerogative of Member States.

The implementation of the EC decision of September 27, 2013 was relatively smooth. In an OPCW-UN Joint Mission, the OPCW provided the technical experts and the UN the logistical and security coordination support. In a few months all chemical weapons declared by Syria were transported outside of the country for destruction in certain facilities, including on a cargo ship provided by the United States. During this process, we enjoyed the cooperation of Syrian authorities and the support of all members, primarily the United States and the Russian Federation. I held regular weekly meetings with the Ambassadors of these two countries to review the progress and to find solutions together for outstanding issues.

While this process was underway, in the spring of 2014 we received reports of use of CWs against the opposition groups. I thought that we could not remain indifferent in the face of such allegations. If proven, they would constitute violations of the EC and UNSC decisions as well as the CWC. I decided to set up a team of experts who would establish the facts surrounding the reported allegations. We called it the Fact Finding Mission (FFM). We concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Syrian Government for the conduct of the mission according to which the protection of the team would be assured by the Government forces.

The FFM was deployed to Damascus in May 2014. As requested by the U.N. we created a firewall between the FFM and the Joint Mission. On May 27th, early in the morning, on their way to Kafr Zita—a town close to Hama in the north—to investigate a recently reported incident, the team came under attack. The attack, first with an improvised explosive device which destroyed an armored car, followed by an ambush, could have had devastating consequences. We never knew who was responsible for this ostensibly well-planned attack. The team members were fortunate to escape it with minor injuries.

The first mission of the FFM in Syria was aborted. We had to call back the team to The Hague, but we didn’t give up.

The FFM continued to fulfill its task from countries neighboring Syria, and it still does. Several FFM missions were conducted since 2014 by teams composed of different experts, all OPCW employees. They had interviews with the victims, eye witnesses, health workers, and collected biomedical samples from victims and environmental samples from incident sites. The samples were brought first to the OPCW laboratory in The Hague and after they were split they were sent to two different OPCW designated laboratories for analysis. The initial network of OPCW laboratories was specialized on the analysis of environmental samples. In view of the FFM work in Syria, we had to develop in parallel a new network of laboratories for the biomedical samples.

After each reported incident we also invited member countries, including Syria, to provide the Secretariat with any information they may possess. Following the collection of the necessary data the FFM teams would analyze them and prepare a report for me, which I would share immediately with the Member States. I never interfered with the work of the FFM and I asked the team members to reconcile their differences, if any, among themselves. The FFM repored on several allegations of the use of sarin, sulfur mustard and chlorine in different parts of Syria, without getting into the identification of perpetrators.

Meanwhile, we decided to set up a separate team to deal with the work on the Syrian declaration. It is called the Declaration Assessment Team (DAT). Any country which joins the OPCW has the obligation to declare to the OPCW Secretariat all CW stockpiles, delivery means, production facilities, research centres, and other matters. Syria made a first declaration prepared with the help of OPCW experts at the early stage of the process. However, following some verification activities, traces of undeclared chemicals were discovered. Moreover, there were questions to be answered by the Syrian authorities on the quantity of certain chemicals and munitions. DAT paid several visits to Syria, collected samples, and discussed issues with Syrian experts. The member countries were not satisfied with the progress and asked me, through an EC decision, to hold consultations with senior Syrian officials. I held three rounds of discussions at the OPCW Headquarters with the then-Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and his team of experts. We made some progress, for example, by adding the research laboratories in Damascus to the declaration. But several issues remained unresolved. At the CSP last week, my successor Ambassador Fernando Arias stated once again that the Syrian declaration could not be considered accurate and complete.

Going back to the allegations of use, alarmed by the increasing number of reported incidents and the FFM reports, the members of the UNSC unanimously adopted a resolution (2235) in August 2015 to establish an OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to deepen the investigation on incidents of use established by the FFM with a view to identifying the perpetrators. The Syrians were taken aback. This was a month before the Russian military involvement in Syria. Although the OPCW’s name was mentioned on the title, the head of JIM appointed by the UN Secretary General (UNSG) insisted that the mission would work independently on the grounds that it would directly report to the UNSC, while borrowing some OPCW staff and all relevant FFM documentation and material. We provided the JIM some offices at the OPCW headquarters, under their full control. JIM produced some reports identifying the Syrian Government armed forces as responsible for the use of CWs in three cases and an opposition group in one incident. The reports were not well-received by Syria and its allies. They rejected the conclusions and tried to discredit the credibility of the reports. At the end of 2017, the Russian Federation vetoed the extension of the mandate of JIM at the UNSC. A gap on the attribution mechanism occurred.

The last report submitted by JIM to the UNSC in October 2017 covered the incident of 4 April 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun, near Idlib in the north. When we received the first reports at the OPCW, we were shocked. More than eighty people were killed and 500 were injured. Sarin was reportedly used for the first time since Ghouta. I instructed the FFM to start working on the investigation of the incident. The United States launched cruise missiles on Shayrat air base on April 7th.

While the FFM was collecting information and material on the incident, the Syrian authorities invited an OPCW team to visit the site in Khan Sheikhoun. We agreed. This would be the first deployment by the FFM since May 2014.

The area was the scene of daily skirmishes between the Government forces and the armed opposition groups. We asked the support of the UN Security Department, to make arrangements with different groups in order to ensure the safety of our staff. While the team went to Beirut to travel northward with a convoy, the Syrians offered the OPCW environmental samples brought from the site of the incident, with a video clip showing the collection of the samples and telling us that their own analysis showed the existence of sarin. I asked our team to wait in Beirut and brought the samples received from Syrian authorities to The Hague. The analysis of these samples proved, indeed, the use of sarin.

Since the mandate of the FFM was limited to determining the fact of use, but not by whom, I decided not to take further risks and I asked the team to return. The Syrian Government denied any responsibility and it claimed together with its allies that the attack was staged by the opposition groups. There was no evidence that the opposition groups possessed nerve agents, like sarin, which require considerable know-how and technology for production. The JIM, in its report, identified the Syrian air forces as being responsible for dropping a bomb filled with sarin.

The French Government took an initiative for an international partnership against impunity, in relation to the use of CWs in Syria. I participated in the first meeting of countries taking part in this initiative, in January 2018, in Paris. I briefed the participants about what the OPCW had been doing on allegations of use of CWs in Syria. But this French initiative could not be a substitute for an international, independent attribution mechanism. The FFM was continuing to carry out its mission.

In early April 2018, a new attack was reported in Douma, an opposition-controlled town, near Damascus. We deployed the team after some delay by the Syrian authorities. The FFM worked on the site and also held contacts later with the victims. Based on the information collected it determined the use of chlorine. This was also contested by Syria and its partners.

In my public statements in the spring of 2018, I advocated the establishment of a new attribution mechanism which I saw as the only possible deterrent to prevent further uses of CWs. Such use was a crime and potential users needed to be put on notice that they would, one day, be brought to justice and punished. I added that the OPCW could fulfill this task if it was given a mandate by the membership. I was getting closer to my departure in July and I knew that some pro-Syrian countries were critical of the Secretariat and myself. They claimed that we were not impartial, the evidence in support of the FFM findings were fabricated by “terrorists,” etc. An intense campaign of defamation against the Secretariat was undertaken. I know that this campaign continued after my departure, interestingly with the involvement of a few former OPCW inspectors. I don’t know what exactly were their motivations but their claims were quite clearly not reflecting the truth. I didn’t have any single doubt about the integrity of our FFM team members who were involved in the investigations. Their findings were a result of meticulous work, using scientific methods and analyses.

One day, an Ambassador asked me at an informal gathering what my advice to my successor would be. I said that my successor was an experienced diplomat and would probably not need any advice but I would recommend that henot remain neutral in the face of developments putting at stake the credibility and the integrity of the CWC regime. The Director General and the Secretariat should not hesitate to act in order to protect them while being impartial, objective and maintaining equidistance with member countries.

In March 2018, the use of novichok in Salisbury, UK, was reported. I offered to send a team to investigate the incident independently. The offer was accepted by the British Government and our team of experts confirmed the existence of novichok, based on the analysis of biomedical and environmental samples that they collected. I believe that this incident gave a significant impetus to the international efforts in search of strengthening the CWC regime aimed at preventing further uses of CWs. Western countries mobilized a great number of States Parties and convened a special session of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) in June 2018. The CSP adopted a decision to establish an Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) that would work on the basis of FFM reports but would not address the cases already reported by JIM.

The IIT has produced two reports so far, the second one in early April. The team concluded that the Syrian armed forces were responsible for the use of toxic chemicals in two different cases. The reports were also shared with the UN Secretary General. The CSP took them into account while adopting the decision on Syria. But some countries continued to claim that the establishment of the IIT was illegal, the attribution issues could not be within the purview of the OPCW since it was a technical organization, and the UNSC should address them. It was suddenly forgotten that the IIT was created because the JIM’s mandate was not extended. The language used in the solemn declaration issued in 2015 by Member States, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the first large scale use of CWs in Ypres, Belgium was reiterated by several representatives: “We are against any use of CWs by anyone, under any circumstances. We are fully committed to the CWC.” Ironically, what was said following these words was totally divergent. Some supported the decision to uphold the CWC regime, others disagreed claiming that this approach was politicizing the organization and dividing the membership, and intimidating prospective members (there are only four countries which are not yet party to the CWC).

I suspect that discussions over the critical matter of attribution in cases of use of CWs and compliance issues in relation to Syria will not end in the near future. I hope, however, that the CWC regime, which is one of the pillars of the rules-based international order, will not be undermined as a result of this confrontation.

The OPCW with all its organs, including the Technical Secretariat, is one of the most successful international organizations and this was acknowledged by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in 2013.

It is in the interest of the international community to uphold and strengthen such institutions, for they serve the interests of not a few countries but the entire global community. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that we need closer international cooperation for our common good and effective organizations that facilitate it.

Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü is a Senior Advisor to the Council on Strategic Risks. He served as Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague from 2010 to 2018. He is a career diplomat with vast experience in multilateral diplomacy.


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