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UN Security Council members clash over Syrian chemical weapons

The site of a suspected chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma near Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 2018. (AP Photo / Hassan Ammar)

“Gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies” remain unresolved as Syria fails to convince UN Security Council members its chemical weapons programme has been eliminated, prompting calls for sanctions.

Countries clashed on Tuesday at the first UN Security Council meeting of 2021 over an initiative to suspend Syria’s voting rights in the international chemical weapons watchdog for failing to provide details of chemical attacks in the country.

Members of the Security Council, presided over this month by Tunisia, were briefed that there were still “gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies” in the declaration Syria had submitted to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on its chemical weapons status.

The high representative for disarmament affairs (ODA) Izumi Nakamitsu said the declaration “cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)”, which Syria joined in 2013 after a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, near Damascus killed hundreds of civilians. The attack was widely blamed on President Bashar Assad’s government.

Tuesday’s meeting was convened to discuss the 87th monthly report on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, which reiterated concerns over Syria’s failure to address the outstanding issues.

“We're all aware on this council that in the more than seven years since the Assad regime’s ascension to the convention, it has failed to fulfil [its] obligations,” said United States deputy ambassador to the UN Richard Mills. “It has sought to make a mockery of the structures in place to realise a world free of chemical weapons.”

The United States, France and the United Kingdom were joined by new council members Ireland and Norway in condemning Syria’s failure to meet a deadline set by the OPCW in July 2020 to declare nerve agents that OPCW investigators said had been dropped by government forces on the town of Latamneh in March 2017.

In 2014, the Assad government declared the destruction of its chemical weapons complete, but the country’s initial declaration of its stockpiles and weapons production sites has been disputed by the body ever since.

Ireland’s UN ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, a new council member along with representatives of India, Kenya and Mexico, said the remaining gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s initial declaration were “deeply disturbing”.

“Over those seven years [since Syria joined the CWC], the number of issues that need to be addressed has expanded from five to 19,” she said. “There have been 17 amendments to Syria's declaration including the addition of a production facility, four research and development centres, and the doubling of the amount of declared agents and chemicals.”

There are also issues related to hundreds of tons of missing chemical agents, Syria's failure to explain the presence of an unnamed chemical that was detected at a research centre, and reports of a production facility that Syria declared having never been used despite investigators having found “clear evidence to the contrary ”.

Accusing member countries of “playing this ‘chemical card’ to step up pressure on the Syrian government”, Russia's deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky claimed the watchdog was “seriously ill with politicisation” and accused Western delegations of trying to “inflate agitation” around Syria. Polyanksy also accused OPCW investigators of being “unscrupulous”, alleging they used “forgeries” and “manipulations”.

Syria's deputy foreign minister and former UN ambassador Bashar Ja'afari accused Western nations of using the OPCW “as a platform to fabricate allegations and then justify an assault and aggression on Syria”, with an aim “to frame the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons ”.

Responding to the accusations, French ambassador Nicola De Rivière denounced “the false accusation of those who seek to discredit OPCW” and its findings.

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

The 193 member states of the OPCW will meet in The Hague in April to consider a measure drafted by France on behalf of 46 countries including the United States to suspend Syria's “rights and privileges” in the body. US deputy ambassador Mills urged council members to support the French measure.

“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.