Russia and West clash over Syria chemical weapons sanctions

Damascus failed to provide details of three poison gas attacks in 2017 that investigators say were carried out by its air force

FILE - This file  image released early Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a child receiving oxygen through a respirator following an alleged poison gas attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been thrust once again into the international limelight by a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain and allegations of a chemical bombardment on the Syrian city of Douma. It is now attempting to investigate, but its experts have not yet been able to visit the scene. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File)
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Syria and close ally Russia clashed with the US and other nations on Tuesday over a western initiative to suspend Syria’s voting rights in the global chemical weapons watchdog.

Washington and others say Damascus failed to provide details of three chemical attacks in 2017 that investigators blamed on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The confrontation in the UN Security Council foreshadowed a showdown when the 193 member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons meet in The Hague, Netherlands, in April.

They will gather to consider a French-drafted measure, on behalf of 46 countries, to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges as part of the body.

The French proposal was a response to Syria’s failure to meet a 90-day deadline set in July by the OPCW’s executive council for Damascus to declare the nerve agent sarin and chlorine.

Last April, OPCW investigators said the substances were dropped on the central town of Latamneh by the Syrian air force in March 2017.

The western effort reflects a broader effort to obtain accountability for Syrian chemical attacks and highlight claims the Assad’s government is secretly continuing its chemical weapons programme.

Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, pressed by Russia, after a deadly chemical weapons attack that the West blamed on Damascus.

By August 2014, the Assad government declared the destruction of its chemical weapons was complete. But Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical stockpiles and chemical weapons production sites has remained in dispute.

Ireland’s UN ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, said it was “deeply disturbing” that the OPCW still cannot determine whether the initial declaration was accurate or complete because of gaps and inconsistencies. Alluding to Russia, she said the problems were not “minor”, as some would portray.

“Over those seven years, the number of issues that need to be addressed has expanded from five to 19,” Ms Byrne Nason said.

“There have been 17 amendments to Syria’s declaration, including the addition of a production facility, four research and development centres and doubling of the amount of declared agents and chemicals.”

In addition, she said, there are issues related to hundreds of tonnes of missing agents and munitions that were reportedly destroyed before Syria joined the chemical convention.

Reports that a production plant was operational contradicted claims by Damascus that it had never been used, she said. “There is clear evidence to the contrary,” she said.

Norwegian Ambassador Mona Juul also expressed concern at Syria’s failure to explain the presence of a chemical that can be used in chemical weapons but also has non-military uses. The substance, the nature of which was not disclosed, was detected at the Barzah premises of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre, she said.

Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, again accused OPCW investigators of being unscrupulous and said they used forgeries and “manipulations” to blame Syria.

He called the chemical watchdog “seriously ill with politicisation” and accused several  countries of “playing this chemical card” to step up pressure on the Syrian government.

As for the initial Syrian declaration, Mr Polyansky said Damascus was not “an extraordinary case”, pointing to amended declarations by western countries including France and Germany as well as Libya. He accused western delegations of trying to “inflate agitation” around Syria.

French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere expressed regret at “the false accusations of those who seek to discredit OPCW” and its findings about Syrian attacks.

“There is simply the reality of the facts,” he said. “We all know them: the regime used weapons of war prohibited by international law against its own population, and since then we have seem chemical weapons re-emerge and become commonplace in Syria and elsewhere.”

British Ambassador Barbara Woodward said OPCW investigators, alone and initially with a UN team, determined Syria used chemical weapons on at least six occasions.

“These are not hypothetical issues for the thousands of Syrian civilians who have suffered the horrifying effects on the body of nerve agents and chlorine,” she said.

Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s deputy foreign minister and former UN ambassador, accused some western nations of using the OPCW “as a platform to fabricate allegations and then justify an assault and aggression on Syria”.

Their aim, he said, was “to frame the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons and exonerate the terrorists and the sponsors ... and give them the necessary means to escape through the occupied Golan area through Israel to the capitals of western states where they can live”.

Mr Polyansky said Syria could not meet the OPCW’s anti-Syria demands on Latamneh because it “simply doesn’t have” the chemical weapons and facilities the organisation is seeking.

“Hopefully, the majority of delegations at the member states’ conference in April will reject this provocation, and the West-initiated decision, which is ‘punitive’ by nature, will not pass,” he said.

US deputy ambassador Richard Mills said neither the Security Council nor the world was “fooled” by Russia’s accelerated campaign to discredit the OPCW.

He urged council members to call on all countries to support the French draft against Syria in April “aimed at promoting accountability for the Assad regime’s actions”.

“It is time that the Syrian people, and indeed all the globe’s people, be allowed to live in a world free of the threat of chemical weapons,” he said.