Syria Chemical Weapons Declaration Still Not ‘Accurate and Complete’, Disarmament Chief Tells Security Council, as Delegates Debate Frequency of Meetings
Representative of Damascus Spotlights Cooperation with International Monitors, Stresses No Progress to Be Made through Ultimatums
Pending issues with Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons programme remain unresolved, the United Nations disarmament chief told the Security Council today, as delegates traded barbs over the impartiality of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the frequency with which the 15-member organ considers the matter.
“As has been stressed repeatedly, due to the identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved […] at this stage, Syria’s declaration cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention,” said High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu, as she presented one of her regular updates on the implementation of Council resolution 2118 (2013) regarding the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme.
She said OPCW has not yet received the requested declaration from Syria on all undeclared types and quantities of nerve agents produced and/or weaponized at a former chemical weapons production facility that was declared as never having been used for such purposes. Nor has it received from Syria the requested further information and documentation regarding the damage caused during the 8 June 2021 attack on a military site, which houses a declared former chemical weapons production facility, she said.
In addition, she said, OPCW has also not received a response to its request for information regarding the unauthorized movement and remains of two destroyed cylinders related to the chemical weapon incident that took place in the city of Douma on 7 April 2018. Meanwhile, the OPCW Technical Secretariat is still not able to conduct its next round of consultations in Damascus due to Syria’s continued refusal to issue an entry visa for one member of the team.
In the ensuing discussion, the Russian Federation’s representative noted that the Council was briefed on the same matter just 10 days ago. Western colleagues have not listened to the proposal made by China and his country to adjust the timetable to avoid “meeting for the sake of meeting”. Noting that the Council discusses Syria at least twice a month — while it meets on other active situations, such as Libya, only every two months — he said OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias should answer his delegation’s outstanding questions or risk increasing suspicions that the Technical Secretariat has something to hide.
His counterpart from the United States disagreed, arguing that the Council should continue to receive regular updates on Syria’s chemical weapons file and the critical work of OPCW. Every one of the 17 amendments that Syria has made to its initial declaration has been because of OPCW expert investigations, he stressed.
The United Kingdom’s delegate drew parallels between the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine and its actions in Syria, calling for an end to Moscow’s disinformation campaign. The Russian Federation has a long history of deflection, denial and obstructive behaviour when it comes to chemical weapons, he said, asking Council members whom they prefer to believe — a country with a track record of using chemical weapons or an independent, impartial international organization that carries out rigorous investigations based on clear evidence.
The representative of China, noting that OPCW faces challenges in its work, stressed the need for the entity and its Director-General to make greater efforts to uphold objectivity and neutrality. Echoing calls for the frequency of meetings on Syria’s chemical weapons file to be reduced, he reminded members that the subject of today’s meeting is Syria, and they should refrain from introducing issues that are not related to the subject under discussion.
Syria’s representative recalled that nine years ago, terrorist groups launched a chemical weapons missile near Aleppo that resulted in 25 deaths and 110 injuries. Syria then asked for the creation of an independent investigative team. Unfortunately, that team never visited the site and never investigated, and accepts evidence from “anonymous third parties” instead of collecting samples themselves. Noting other examples of attempts to undermine Syria’s cooperation with OPCW, he warned that no progress will be made through pressure or ultimatums.
Also speaking were the representatives of Albania, France, Norway, Ireland, Brazil, India, Ghana (also for Gabon and Kenya), Mexico, United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey.
The representatives of the Russian Federation and China took the floor for a second time.
The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and ended 11:20 a.m.
IZUMI NAKAMITSU, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, briefed the Council on the implementation of resolution 2118 (2013) on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, noting that despite continued COVID-19-related travel restrictions, the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) continued to undertake its mandated activities and its engagement with Damascus. Efforts by the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team are still ongoing to clarify all the outstanding issues related to Syria’s initial and subsequent declarations.
She noted that OPCW has not yet received the requested declaration from Syria on all undeclared types and quantities of nerve agents produced and/or weaponized at a former chemical weapons production facility that was declared as never having been used for such purposes. Nor has it received from Syria the requested further information and documentation regarding the damage caused during the 8 June 2021 attack on a military site, which houses a declared former chemical weapons production facility. In addition, OPCW has also not received a response to its request for information regarding the unauthorized movement and remains of two destroyed cylinders related to the chemical weapon incident that took place in the city of Douma on 7 April 2018. Against that backdrop, she called on the Syrian authorities to respond to the Technical Secretariat’s requests with the necessary urgency.
The Technical Secretariat is still not able to conduct the twenty-fifth round of consultations in Damascus between the Syrian authorities and the Declaration Assessment Team, she said, due to the continued refusal by Damascus to issue an entry visa for one member of the team. Noting that the Technical Secretariat stands ready to deploy that team to Syria, subject to the issuing of visas and the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, she urged Damascus to fully cooperate with the Technical Secretariat to close all outstanding issues. “As has been stressed repeatedly, due to the identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved […] at this stage, Syria’s declaration cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention,” she said.
The Technical Secretariat is planning to conduct the next rounds of inspections of the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre in 2022, she reported. Regarding the detection of a Schedule 2 chemical at Barzah in November 2018, she expressed regret that Syria has yet to provide sufficient technical information or explanations. Preparations for the in-person meeting between OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias and Syria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates remain ongoing. The OPCW fact-finding mission has been studying all available information related to allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Director-General’s monthly report refers to the fact-finding mission’s conclusion that sulphur mustard was used in Marea in September 2015 and that a chlorine cylinder was used as a weapon in Kafr Zeita in October 2016. A copy of both reports was circulated to Council members in February.
She recalled that the Technical Secretariat planned to deploy its fact-finding mission to Syria from 22 January to 4 February 2022 to collect information and conduct interviews regarding incidents in Aleppo Governorate in 2016. However, due to confirmed positive COVID‑19 cases within the support team in Damascus, the deployment had to be postponed. Turning to the work of the Investigation and Identification Team, she said its investigations into incidents in which the fact-finding mission has determined that chemical weapons were used or likely used are ongoing, with further reports to be issued in due course. She voiced her full support for the integrity, professionalism, impartiality, objectivity and independence of OPCW’s work.
Regarding the April 2021 decision by the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges, she said Damascus has not yet completed any of the measures, stipulated in the decision, that are needed to restore its privileges. “The use of chemical weapons is a grave violation of international law and an affront to our shared humanity,” she declared, stressing the need to remain vigilant to ensure that those awful weapons are eliminated, not only in Syria, but everywhere.
VASSILY A. NEBENZIA (Russian Federation), noting that no changes have occurred in the Syria file since the Council met 10 days ago, said today’s meeting demonstrates that the current schedule for discussing the matter in the Council is completely artificial. Western colleagues have not supported suggestions made by China and the Russian Federation for adjusting the timetable to allow for more effective work on the topic. Warning against “meeting for the sake of meeting”, he said such an approach only undermines the Council’s credibility. To illustrate the exaggerated attention Western colleagues are paying to Syria, he recalled recent events in Libya, where in February, the House of Representatives approved a new Prime Minister, and subsequently two new ministers were kidnapped and an assassination attempt was made on the current interim Prime Minister, Abdel Dbeiba, risking the emergence of actual dual power.
Despite all those events, he said, no one proposed to adjust the established bimonthly schedule of meetings on Libya, while the Council remains forced to discuss Syria at least twice monthly. On the latter, he reiterated that OPCW’s work has been politicized and its illegitimate Investigation and Identification Group repeatedly reaches deliberately biased conclusions. Noting that he has already discussed the matter at the previous Council meeting on the issue, he voiced his expectation that the OPCW Director-General will brief the Council and answer his delegation’s outstanding questions. Otherwise, suspicions that the Technical Secretariat has something to hide will only be strengthened, he warned.
RICHARD M. MILLS, JR. (United States) said it continues to be essential that the Council receive regular updates on chemical weapons in Syria and the critical work of OPCW in that regard. Noting that the Syrian regime has yet to meet its obligations under resolution 2118 (2013), he said it should stop obstructing OPCW’s work and comply with its obligations. In addition, Syria refuses to provide visas for all members of the OPCW Declaration Assessment Team and it has been more than a year since the last consultations occurred. The Assad regime continues to withhold evidence on the 2021 destruction of chlorine cylinders and continues to fail to explain why they were moved from their documented location, despite instructions to the contrary. Every single one of the 17 amendments Syria has made to its declaration have been because of OPCW expert investigations. Noting that the Russian Federation has repeatedly spread disinformation on the matter, he said recent lies regarding Ukraine should make clear that Moscow cannot be trusted on the matter of chemical weapons use in Syria. Failure to hold the Syrian regime to account for its use of chemical weapons “puts all of us at risk”, he stressed.
XING JISHENG (China) said the frequency of meetings on Syria’s chemical weapons file should be reduced. The investigation into and work on attributing responsibility for alleged use of chemical weapons should be strictly conducted within OPCW’s mandate, he said, stressing the importance of drawing conclusions based on clear evidence and voicing concerns about the Investigation and Identification Team and its work. Before issuing new reports, the fact-finding mission should first clarify questions about the Douma incident report, including by setting norms for its sources of information and its working method, and improve its credibility of its work. Noting that OPCW faces challenges in its work, he stressed the need for the entity and its Director-General to make greater efforts to uphold objectivity and neutrality. Meanwhile, the Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention should return to consensus-based decision-making, he said, voicing his expectation that OPCW’s Director-General will brief the Council.
JAMES KARIUKI (United Kingdom) said Syria remains uncooperative, with many issues relating to the country’s declaration still unresolved. Damascus continues to breach Council resolution 2118 (2013), he said, urging Syria to cooperate with OPCW and return to compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Drawing parallels between the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine and its actions in Syria, he called for an end to Moscow’s disinformation campaign. The Russian Federation has a long history of deflection, denial and obstructive behaviour when it comes to chemical weapons, he said, recalling that in 2017 President Vladimir Putin claimed that a chemical attack attributed by the United Nations to the Syrian regime was staged by Western nations. Moscow has used 40 different disinformation narratives about the chemical weapons incident in the town of Salisbury, in the United Kingdom. He asked Council members whom they prefer to believe, a country with a track record of using chemical weapons or an independent, impartial international organization that carried out rigorous investigations based on clear evidence.
FERIT HOXHA (Albania) pointed to a constant, overwhelming and deliberate lack of cooperation on the part of Syria in responding to the demands clearly formulated in resolution 2118 (2013). Noting that for almost a year, the OPCW team of experts has not carried out any investigation on the Syrian territory, he demanded full and unequivocal cooperation from the Syrian authorities with the OPCW Technical Secretariat and rejected any efforts to discredit or politicize their work. Syria does not have the right to decide either the rules of procedure or the choice of inspectors, he noted, reiterating his country’s firm condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by any actor under any circumstances. The rapid closure of investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria first serves Syria and its citizens, he said, adding that it will also allow the Council to more effectively support the Syrian people in their quest for a peaceful and better future.
NICOLAS DE RIVIÈRE (France), recalling that Syria has used chemical weapons at least eight times since 2013, said there has still been no progress on the matter. Citing recent reports confirming incidents of chemical weapon use, he described the work of the Investigation and Identification Team as essential. It is unacceptable for Syria to continue to obstruct OPCW’s work by, among other things, attempting to undermine the Technical Secretariat’s mission amid misinformation campaigns against its work. Syria must comply with its obligations under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and of Their Destruction, he said, stressing that France remains committed to ending impunity and ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable.
TRINE SKARBOEVIK HEIMERBACK (Norway) stressed that Syria must fulfil its obligations in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention and resolution 2118 (2013), pointing to 20 outstanding issues from the country’s initial declaration that stand unresolved. Expressing regret over persistent delays in the issuance of visas to the Declaration Assessment Team, she underlined Syria’s obligation to cooperate fully with OPCW. Recalling that the Organization has requested further information about a reported attack on a former chemical weapons production facility — which apparently contained equipment of relevance to an investigation — she said called on Syria to comply with that and all other requests. It is critical that Damascus complete the necessary measures to lift the suspension of its rights and privileges as a State party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, she added.
GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland) underlined the importance of upholding the international legal norm against chemical weapons use, with OPCW being essential in implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Organization has demonstrated its impartiality and any misinformation discrediting its work is not acceptable. Indeed, efforts by Syria and others to frustrate OPCW’s efforts will have serious consequences. Noting that a total of 20 substantive issues remain outstanding in the Syrian file, she recalled that OPCW has shown that there were 17 incidents where chemical weapons were likely used, by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and, in most cases, by the Syrian Air Force. There is no justification for such attacks, she said, citing other findings and emphasizing that the Council must uphold its decisions in resolution 2118 (2013) to ensure that Syria’s chemical weapons programme is verifiably destroyed. Meanwhile, Syria and OPCW must engage in constructive discussions leading in that direction. The Technical Secretariat has made clear the concrete actions needed, she said, urging Syria to stop blocking its efforts and to issue visas to permit the continuation of its work.
TAINÃ LEITE NOVAES (Brazil), recalling that the Council met 10 days ago to discuss the same item and reports, said the periodicity of these meetings should be better discussed among members to prevent diminishing their importance. Brazil firmly supports the work of OPCW and condemns the use of weapons of mass destruction. Expressing support for a strong, transparent and independent OPCW, he reiterated that all investigations pertaining to such incidents must be impartial, balanced, technical and comprehensive. There is a need to restore trust between OPCW and Syria, which would constitute a fundamental step towards overcoming the regrettable politicization that has undermined the culture of consensus within the Organization and its decision-making bodies. Welcoming recent efforts to hold in-person meetings, he said that kind of constructive approach helps build confidence while paving the way for the consolidation of a comprehensive and effective dialogue. Both parties must keep up the good work, he said, encouraging the Government of Syria to provide full access to the OPCW expert teams, including by issuing the necessary visas. Once travel restrictions worldwide begin to be lifted, he anticipated the deployment of further on-site inspections, which could help advance a conclusion to the Syrian file.
VIDISHA MAITRA (India) encouraged continued engagement between Syria and the OPCW Technical Secretariat to resolve outstanding issues, expressing hope that the twenty-fifth round of talks between the Declaration Assessment Team and the Syrian Government and the in-person high-level meeting between Syria and OPCW will be held soon. India attaches high importance to the Chemical Weapons Convention and stands for its full, effective and non-discriminatory implementation, she said, stressing that any investigation into the use of chemical weapons must be impartial, credible and objective. She went on to reiterate the need for caution against the possibility of terrorist entities and individuals gaining access to chemical weapons, including in the region, referring to reports by the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD) which cite the repeated deployments of chemical weapons by proscribed terrorist groups and those affiliated with ISIL/Da’esh against civilian populations between 2014 and 2016.
HAROLD ADLAI AGYEMAN (Ghana), also speaking on behalf of Gabon and Kenya, welcomed the latest report of OPCW while noting its divergence with the Syrian authorities on unaddressed gaps. Calling for meaningful progress through enhanced relations, he said the proposed in-person meeting between Syria’s Foreign Minister and the OPCW Director-General would be a useful opportunity for confidence-building. That meeting should be held sooner rather than later. Regarding the deployment of the Declaration Assessment Team, he urged Syria to grant unhindered and unfettered access for all members of the team and looked forward to more information on subsequent rounds of investigations that have been planned for 2022. The Council’s three African members will continue to support accountability measures to hold perpetrators to account, he said, acknowledging the important work of the fact-finding mission in Syria and stressing the need for it to remain impartial in carrying out its mandate.
ENRIQUE JAVIER OCHOA MARTÍNEZ (Mexico) spotlighted inconsistencies in Syria’s initial declaration. It has not been possible to hold the twenty-fifth round of negotiations with OPCW due to the refusal of the Syrian authorities to grant visas to all members of the Declaration Assessment Team. Expressing regret that Syria fails to comply with its obligations, he said OPCW teams have found reasonable grounds to believe that chemical weapons were used on several occasions and expressed concern that terrorist groups might acquire such weapons or substances. Against that backdrop, he rejected the use of chemical weapons by any actor for any reason.
MOHAMED ISSA ABUSHAHAB (United Arab Emirates), encouraging constructive and meaningful dialogue between OPCW and the Syrian Government, called for improvements in the modalities of their cooperation in line with the Organization’s principles and technical nature — which include consensus and non-politicization. Facilitating the Declaration Assessment Team's visit to Syria will contribute to achieving these goals, he said. Pointing to the presence of terrorist groups and armed militias in Syria, he called more attention to preventing terrorists from obtaining chemical weapons, in accordance with the relevant Council resolutions, and stressed the importance of continuing to combat ISIL/Da’esh in Syria in order to prevent their reorganizing or acquiring chemical weapons.
The representative of the Russian Federation, taking the floor for a second time, said that as a number of colleagues touched on the “special military operation” in Ukraine, he wished to respond. The representative of Albania noted the situation in the maternity hospital in Mariupol, where allegedly there are victims after an attack by the Russian Federation. He referenced an official communication by his delegation to the Council on 7 March which explained that the facility had been taken over by Azov fighters long ago and converted into a strike facility for the Ukrainian nationalists. “Women have not been in labour for a long time there,” he said, noting that this can be confirmed by social networks. The people of Mariupol, who are being kept as human shields by the Azov fighters, examined photos on social networks and identified the model used in those pictures. “She plays three pregnant women, all at the same time, differently made up,” he said, noting that she can also be found in other pictures by the same photographer, who works with the Associated Press and The New York Times. He asked his colleagues not to disseminate fake news in the Council.
The representative of China, taking the floor for a second time, reminded members that the subject of the meeting is the chemical weapons issue in Syria. He expressed his hope that they will focus on the topic at hand and refrain from introducing issues that are not related to the subject under discussion, allowing the Council to deliberate on relevant issues swiftly and normally.
KOUSSAY ALDAHHAK (Syria) said that nine years ago, on 19 March 2013, terrorist groups launched a chemical weapons missile in Aleppo Governorate that resulted in 25 deaths and 110 injuries in Khan al-Assal district. The Government of Syria sent a request to the previous Secretary-General and asked for the creation of an independent investigative team. Unfortunately, that team never visited the site and never investigated. The Khan al-Assal incident remains evidence that some countries are hiding the crimes of terrorists, he said, adding that the fact-finding mission accepts samples from “anonymous third parties” instead of collecting samples themselves, so as to preserve the chain of custody. The mission also uses open-source information that comes from terrorist groups and their sponsors.
Noting that Syria voluntarily acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons and production facilities, he said the Syrian National Commission has facilitated 24 rounds of consultations with OPCW. The Technical Secretariat has full responsibility for the twenty-fifth round, he said, adding that its work does not depend on the presence of one single person who did not receive his or her visa. Noting other examples of pressure being exerted and attempts made to undermine Syria’s cooperation, he said his country submitted its twenty-ninth monthly report on chemical weapons destruction and continues to work to facilitate a high-level meeting between the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Expatriates and the OPCW Director-General as soon as possible. The success of the Organization’s work and mandates will not be achieved through pressure or ultimatums, he stressed, calling for a review of the body’s working methods.
MAJID TAKHT RAVANCHI (Iran) said politicizing the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and exploiting OPCW for politically driven national goals have major negative consequences for the authority and credibility of both the Convention and the organization. Syria has complied with its obligations under the instrument in good faith, continues to cooperate with OPCW and regularly provides information to the Technical Secretariat about the possession and use of chemical materials by some terrorist groups, as well as the fabrication of “chemical incidents” aimed at blaming the Syrian Army for such heinous acts. As an example, he pointed to the recent fabrication of a chemical incident in Sarmada that involved the Al-Nusra Front group. Recalling the disastrous and horrific repercussions of Iraq’s systematic use of chemical weapons against Iran, he reiterated his delegation’s opposition to the use of such weapons, stressing that only their complete destruction and elimination on a global scale can ensure that they are never used again. Reiterating his call on the Council to use its meetings on Syria more effectively, he said dedicating a monthly session to the repetition of positions and unfounded allegations against the country is not conducive to that goal.
ÖNCÜ KEÇELI (Turkey) said there is now a growing body of scientific evidence behind the Syrian regime’s continued failure to comply with its international obligations, with reports from the United Nations-OPCW Joint Investigation Mechanism, the fact-finding mission and the Investigation and Identification Team all pointing in the same direction. Such violations have serious repercussions for international peace and security, he warned, declaring: “It takes a war criminal to use chemical weapons once. But to use chemical weapons on at least eight separate occasions, that takes the Assad regime.” Highlighting the special responsibility of those backing that regime, he urged the Council to speak with a unified voice on this grave issue. Impunity for such abhorrent crimes against humanity cannot and should not be tolerated, he said.