The UN disarmament chief reported the discovery of an undeclared chemical warfare agent at a Syrian site to a Security Council meeting Thursday where the United States and its Western allies clashed with Russia over international findings that Syria has used chemical weapons.
Izumi Nakamitsu didn’t name the agent detected in samples by the international chemical weapons watchdog, but said its presence “inside storage containers of large volume at a previously declared chemical weapons facility may imply undeclared production activities.”
Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, pressed by its close ally Russia after a deadly chemical weapons attack that the West blamed on Damascus. By August 2014, President Bashar Assad’s government declared that the destruction of its chemical weapons was completed. But Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical stockpiles and chemical weapons production sites to the Organization for the Protection of Chemical Weapons has remained in dispute.
Nakamitsu told the council that Syria also reiterated recently that a former chemical production facility was never used to produce or weaponize chemical weapons. The OPCW had said information and materials gathered there since 2014 indicated “that production and/or weaponization of chemical warfare nerve agents did, in fact, take place at this facility.”
Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, said the OPCW rejected Syria’s latest denial and still maintains that the Assad government must declare all chemical warfare agents produced at the site.
She said the unadulterated chemical warfare agent found at the declared site is being added to the OPCW's list of outstanding issues, whose number and nature “is concerning.” She again called on Syria to fully cooperate with OPCW technical experts to resolve them.
In April 2020, OPCW investigators blamed three chemical attacks in 2017 on the Syrian government. The OPCW Executive Council responded by demanding that Syria provide details. When it didn’t, France submitted a draft measure on behalf of 46 countries in November to suspend Syria’s “rights and privileges” in the global watchdog. In an unprecedented vote on April 21, the OPCW suspended Syria’s rights until all outstanding issues are resolved.
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U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills welcomed the OPCW’s decision, saying it “sends a clear and collective message that the use of chemical weapons has consequences.”
He said the OPCW’s report days earlier on April 12 that found “reasonable grounds to believe” that a Syrian air force military helicopter dropped a chlorine cylinder on a Syrian town in 2018, sickening 12 people should not be “a surprise” to those familiar with the Assad regime’s abuses.
“The United States assesses that the regime’s innumerable atrocities -- some of which rise to the level of war crimes, crimes against humanity -- include at least 50 chemical attacks since the conflict began” in Syria in 2011, Mills said. “We continue to assess that the Assad regime retains sufficient chemicals to use sari, to produce and deploy chlorine munitions, and to develop new chemical weapons.”
Russia’s deputy ambassador Dmitry Polyansky reiterated Moscow's attack on the OPCW and its investigators, accusing them of factual and technical errors and acting under pressure from Western nations whose intention is “to provoke Damascus to take drastic steps and thus achieve their own political objectives.”
“We cannot allow OPCW or any other specialized international platform becoming a tool to punish those that have fallen out of favor by using unfounded accusations of the use of weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “Any other state could end up in Syria’s position, states that the Western colleagues have decided to put pressure on using the chemical issue as a lever.”
Polyansky also denounced the OPCW’s “completely unprecedented decision” to suspend Syria, insisting Damascus has observed the Chemical Weapons Convention “in good faith.”
“Those behind the anti-Syrian campaign seeking to make Syria an outcast in the OPCW, do they really expect to be able to continue business as usual with Damascus?,” he asked.
Mills dismissed Russia’s efforts “to impugn the OPCW and push a false narrative that the OPCW’s efforts to investigate and attribute the use of chemical weapons in Syria are part of a Western plot to attempt regime change in Damascus.”
“This council and UN member states are not fooled by this Russian disinformation tactic,” he said.