THE HAGUE — The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is inching closer in trying to determine who instigated the various chemical attacks in Syria last year. In April 2018, gas cylinders filled with chlorine were dropped from a helicopter in the residential areas of Douma, outside the capital of Damascus. At least 70 people were killed and up to 650 people were wounded in a flagrant violation of the International Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Syria is a signatory.
The OPCW, as it is known, was created to monitor compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997 and is the world’s first disarmament agreement to help ensure the elimination of chemical weapons within a fixed time frame.
On May 13, the United Nations Security Council is scheduled to hold a closed meeting on chemical weapons use in Syria. At the same time, a newly formed attribution team of legal and technical experts working for the OPCW will begin operating this month, and before the end of the year it is expected to send its findings to Secretary-General António Guterres of the UN. (The OPCW is not part of the UN but collaborates with it in its work.)
Facing fierce Russian resistance to further investigations into the numerous chemical attacks of 2018 as well as much uncertainty surrounding the conditions inside Syria, numerous national representatives to The Hague organization, who have been interviewed for this article but requested anonymity, say there is nonetheless a strong mandate to forge ahead on holding the culprits behind the attacks accountable.
A year has passed since the world first learned about the chlorine attack in Douma — one of many such acts during the Syrian war that has ravaged the country since 2011. Although chlorine is not on the OPCW’s list of forbidden chemicals to be used as a weapon, the world responded swiftly to the Douma attack. A motion by the United States and other Security Council members requesting that a UN team investigate the perpetrators of the long string of attacks with chemical weapons, including sarin gas, was vetoed by Russia, a permanent Council member, in 2018.
A few days after the veto, the US, France and Britain launched airstrikes against three military targets in Syria, damaging but not completely destroying the government’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The 2018 chlorine attack was not the first time that chemical weapons had been used in the Syrian war. Human Rights Watch had up until the 2018 attack documented 85 chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2013. (A recent study has put the number of such attacks at more than 300 during the war.) Western governments were quick to point to the Syrian government, under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, for carrying out the attack in Douma in 2018.
Assad, who is aided and abetted in the war by Russia, blamed the Syrian rebels — “terrorists,” as they label all stripes of the opposition parties fighting the regime — as responsible. Nevertheless, invited by the Syrian government, the OPCW carried out a fact-finding mission in Douma last year.
In March 2018, the mission concluded that chlorine gas had indeed been deployed in the attacks, but it had no mandate to investigate who did it. This was the curious situation in which the investigators have found themselves since the chemical attacks began in Syria years ago: they could fly in, take samples amid dangerous warfare conditions and determine whether a chemical weapons attack had occurred. But assigning blame to any party, whether a country or nonstate actor, was not part of their assignment.
Using its veto power in the Council, Russia blocked six attempts by its fellow Council members to identify and hold accountable the perpetrators behind any chemical attacks in Syria.
Earlier attempts to investigate other chemical attacks in Syria had led to concerted joint UN-OPCW efforts to do so, namely through the 2015 Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM. But when the group carrying out the JIM reported that it had found sufficient evidence linking the Syrian Arab Armed Forces to four chemical weapons attacks in 2014, 2015 and 2017, Russia pulled the plug on the mechanism in 2017.
Attribution again seemed a bridge too far, until during a special general session of the OPCW’s Conference of States Parties in June last year, 82 of the 193 members voted to take attribution from the UN Security Council and bring it to the OPCW. As expected, Russia voted against the motion, convincing 23 other member states to follow suit.
This was a historical moment for the OPCW. The highly technical and multilateral organization received the mandate to pinpoint responsibility to a party or parties for the use of chemical weapons for the first time in its 21-year history. The June 2018 decision mandates it to “establish an Attribution Team, which will undertake its activities in an impartial and objective manner.” Furthermore, “the team will conduct investigations, provide regular status reports and report any findings to the OPCW Executive Council and the United Nations Secretary-General.”
After tedious and protracted budget negotiations, undermined at every turn by Russia, the OPCW 2019 budget allocated approximately $2.2 million for the attribution mechanism in October 2018. One month later, Santiago Oñate Laborde, the former Mexican ambassador to the organization, was named to head the attribution body to form an international eight-person team of investigators, analysts, legal officers and IT specialists. This process is nearly finished.
When it begins working this month, the team will analyze evidence from previous fact-finding missions and gather new intelligence from OPCW member nations and relevant industries, including companies that might have done trade with Syria. It is unlikely that the team will be allowed into Syria, say sources at The Hague office.
A new role for the OPCW
Having inspected and destroyed more than 96 percent of the world’s known stockpiles of chemical weapons, the OPCW has nearly carried out the task for which it was created. Until about five years ago, many people wondered if, having accomplished its mission, it was time that the institution close up shop. But then chemical assassinations happened — including targeting of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal in England, and of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Malaysia.
Together with the larger-scale chemical attacks in Iraq and Syria, these incidents have awakened governments to the fact that not only do chemical weapons stocks still exist, but that countries and nonstate actors seem able and willing to use them.
Despite the new mandate of the OPCW to attribute the use of chemical weapons last year in Syria, the team’s work will present an enormous challenge not just technically but also politically, as the organization’s members may not fully agree with the findings when the report of the team is due by the end of the year. Then it will be clearer as to whether the OPCW has the ability to name names.
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Johannes Visser is a journalist based in Italy who has worked for various Dutch government ministries as well as the Netherlands Government Information Service. He specializes in political and policy issues as well as machine learning, robotics, artificial intelligence, biometrics, digital ID and the EU privacy law. Visser has an MSc in public administration from Rotterdam Erasmus University.