Syria’s Role in Chemical Weapons Attacks to Be Investigated

The Syrian government’s alleged role in a wave of chemical weapons attacks during the country’s civil war will be investigated, it has been confirmed. Members of the world chemical weapons watchdog agreed to expand its powers to identify those behind the attacks in the past three years, The Guardian reports.

Meeting in the Hague, more than 140 countries affiliated to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted by 82 to 24 to expand the body’s powers from simply investigating whether a chemical attack had occurred, to attributing responsibility. A challenging two thirds majority had been required, but the threshold was reached easily. The result was hailed on Twitter by the UK ambassador to the OPCW, Peter Wilson, as “an overwhelming majority to restore the taboo against chemical weapons”.

The resolution, largely promoted by Britain and other western powers, specifically called for the OPCW to “put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic by identifying and reporting on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons”. Expressing concern , it said:

“The use of such chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic, by direct implication, establishes that the Syrian Arab Republic failed to declare and destroy all of its chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities. The resolution demanded “that the Syrian Arab Republic immediately cease all use of chemical weapons and declare all of the chemical weapons it possesses, including sarin and its precursors”.

Many participating nations saw the inability to assign responsibility as a senseless hamstring, especially after fatal chemical attacks during the war in Syria. Russia opposed adding a new license to the agency’s portfolio, saying that was a decision that belonged to the United Nations, The Japan Times adds. Georgy Kalamanov, head of the Russian delegation to the OPCW conference, was quoted by Russia’s Tass news agency saying that “the situation in the OPCW can be compared to the Titanic, which got a hole and began to sink.”

The vote followed a proposal from Britain. Ambassador Peter Wilson, the British representative to OPCW, said the proposal had 30 co-sponsors and the support for it will allow the Nobel Prize-winning weapons watchdog “not just to say when chemical weapons are used, but by whom.” The office of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who traveled to OPCW headquarters in The Hague on Tuesday to push for the proposal, said the organization “will immediately start work to help identify those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.”

“It fills a crucial gap left when the United Nations Security Council was prevented from renewing its own investigation in November,” a statement from Johnson’s office said, referring to objections Russia raised last fall to the OPCW work in Syria.

The U.N. Security Council established a joint U.N.-OPCW investigative team to determine responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. But Russia vetoed a Western-backed resolution in November that would have renewed the joint team’s mandate. Russia argued that the change Britain proposed undercut the legitimacy of the chemical weapons organization and threatened its future. Its representative said at the two-day meeting’s opening that the Security Council was the only place to discuss such issues and that an adoption of the proposal would undermine the U.N. Russia has veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands and the OPCW, said the vote to expand the organization’s authority showed that Western nations “want to bypass the Russian veto in New York.” He also contended that Western representatives applied “unprecedented pressure” on other countries to back Britain’s proposal.

“Diplomats from Britain’s support group went to the foreign ministries of various countries exerting pressure,” Shulgin said. “We are even aware of some cases of outright blackmail.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that the Russian military says it has received a tip about a “provocation” involving the alleged transportation of chemical weapons in Syria. The military’s Reconciliation Center in Syria said Wednesday residents of the northern province of Idlib called to report that a truck loaded with tanks of unidentified liquid, rockets and protective gear arrived in Idlib over the weekend.

It said the truck was escorted by several vehicles emblazoned with the emblem of White Helmets volunteer first responders. The center added that several people clad in protective gear later loaded the rockets with unidentified liquid and powder and took them in the direction of Maarat al-Numaan.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons and its ally Russia has accused activists of making false claims of chemical attacks.