Imminent report expected to finger Syrian government for chemical attacks

Imminent report expected to finger Syrian government for chemical attacks
A man, affected by what activists say is nerve gas, breathes through an oxygen mask in the Damascus suburbs of Jesreen August 21, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

International investigators are about to issue a potentially explosive report which will lay the blame for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It could put South Africa in an awkward position, caught between its commitment to disarmament and its friendship with Syrian President Assad’s chief protector, Russia.

The first report by the newly established Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is widely expected to finger President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government for using chemical weapons against its own people during the civil war which has dragged on since 2011.

This could lead to sanctions against Syria.

Russia, which is Syria’s main ally, would almost certainly lobby members of the OPCW’s 41-nation executive council to vote against adoption of the report and to try to block sanctions.

The OPCW is the implementation arm of the Chemical Weapons Convention which South Africa helped negotiate. Pretoria is on the OPCW executive council and Russia is likely to target it for a special lobbying effort since it is an ally and both are members of BRICS – the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa bloc.

It is unclear how Pretoria would vote. In the protracted row during the last few years over chemical weapons attacks between Syria, Russia and their allies on the one side and Western powers and others on the other, South Africa has so far wavered.

It has been torn between its friendship with Russia and Syria and its principled opposition to the use of chemical weapons, as a country which helped negotiate the Chemical Weapons Convention.

In June 2018, Pretoria joined Russia and other allies of Syria like Iran in voting against a West-sponsored resolution – in the OPCW’s highest decision-making body, the Conference of Parties – to give the OPCW the authority “to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic”. Until then the OPCW had only had the power to establish whether a chemical weapons attack had occurred but not to say who had launched it.

The Western countries and their allies won that debate, the OPCW was given the power of attribution and as a result, the IIT was formed and specifically tasked to investigate and identify who had been responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Later in 2018, Russia and its allies voted against the adoption of the OPCW budget on the grounds that it now included funding for the newly-created IIT. South Africa abstained from that vote, leading Western nations that were pushing for attribution to conclude that it had also done so because the budget included funding for the IIT.

South African officials insisted however that Pretoria abstained because of financial concerns about the growth of the budget.

A year later, in November 2019, South Africa voted for the OPCW budget and this was taken by Western powers as a “fairly significant shift” in its position towards support for attribution. A South African official implicitly acknowledged this by declaring privately “we did something right for a change!”

However, Pretoria’s oscillations on the question of allocating the blame for chemical weapons attacks has created doubt about how it would vote when the first IIT report is published, possibly as early as next month.

The OPCW has identified at least 39 separate chemical weapons attacks in Syria since early April 2014. Another unit, the UN-OPCW joint investigative mechanism, has already fingered the Syrian government for three of those attacks and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) for one of them.

So the new unit, the IIT, also taking into account factors such as the availability of evidence and the number of casualties, focused on nine others of the 39, dating from 12 April 2014 to 7 April 2018 when an attack with a chlorine-based chemical reportedly killed between 40 and 50 people in Douma and prompted the US, UK and France to launch air strikes against Syrian government chemical weapons installations.

Britain’s senior adviser on arms control issues, Dr John Walker, believes the publication of the IIT report over the next few weeks is going to be “a contentious issue… and a defining moment in the history of the OPCW and the Chemical Weapons Convention”.

Walker noted that the OPCW executive council would have to adopt the IIT report by a two-thirds majority – or 28 votes – which meant that every vote was vital. “If you abstain then that’s de facto a vote no,” Walker said, in an apparent oblique reference to abstention-prone South Africa.

“And clearly the Russians will oppose any decision which takes action against their client… That means cajoling, intimidating and bullying, lying. That’s what they’ll do. That’s what they’ve been doing in the past,” he said, adding that Russia’s tactics had included questioning the technical competence of the IIT experts.

But Walker believed that despite this, in the end, the report would be adopted.

“There’s been a lot of argument by some, including the Russians and the Chinese, that this is all just politicising the OPCW; that there’s no authority within the convention to do this.” This was completely untrue, he said. Article 8 of the Chemical Weapons Convention had been written “deliberately and very clearly with provisions to address non-compliance. And of course, the use of chemical weapons is the most egregious example of non-compliance.

“The argument that it’s been politicised is a nonsense because non-compliance is [already] a political problem,” Walker said, adding that Russia and China also argued that deciding by vote, rather than consensus, was also politicising the problem. But nowhere did the Chemical Weapons Convention demand consensus, he said.

“And if you can’t achieve consensus, which would be desirable of course, then voting on decisions is entirely proper and conveys the message that we take this problem seriously and we wish to keep the convention functioning. This is very much part of maintaining and strengthening the rules-based international system.”

And, apart from adopting the report, there also needed to be “an effective response” to it to maintain the effectiveness of the Chemical Weapons Convention and deter future use.

Walker noted that the IIT could only attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks but not itself hold the perpetrators responsible. Accountability would probably be addressed elsewhere, either through the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court (ICC) or some other tribunal such as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) on Syria which is looking at war crimes more generally, for possible future prosecution.

Walker acknowledged that it was unlikely the UN Security Council could impose sanctions on Syria itself or refer it to the ICC as Russia would block such actions with its veto. But individual nations, as well as organisations like the European Union, could impose sanctions.

It was wrong to see this as an issue of the West versus the rest, he suggested. Many other states, in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, shared the view of the Western countries that “the OPCW is a key part of the international arms control and disarmament regime within the wider rules-based system. It’s a key multilateral arms control instrument.

“And if we are to uphold it, then all states, parties, big and small, have to make difficult decisions for it… many small states see their interests best served in maintaining the rules-based system. We can’t have a free-for-all. So that’s why it’s so important. The OPCW works on the basis of facts and evidence. There’s been a lot of abuse, ill-founded, technically-illiterate criticism levelled at the organisation which doesn’t stand up technically.

“The reports are meticulous, well-evidenced, well-sourced, based on sound chemical and engineering and ballistics analysis. So we see no fault in the system despite what others are alleging. So the facts of the case are pretty clear. The OPCW information is not just Western assertions, that’s the key point.”

Walker said he hoped South Africa would “support the multilateral system” by adopting the IIT report and also supporting accountability. 

“It voted for the budget last time which was an important step because South Africa had opposed the establishment of the attribution cell, but they recognise that the decision was taken legitimately.”

South Africa had been instrumental in designing some of the chemical weapons control instruments and had a long-standing track record of supporting the treaties. DM


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