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OPCW points to 17 chemical attacks in Syria

Chemical weapons were used or likely used in at least 17 attacks in Syria, the international chemical weapons watchdog told the U.N. Security Council.

OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias briefs the U.N. Security Council
OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias briefs the U.N. Security Council (AN/OPCW)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Nerve agent sarin, chlorine and other deadly substances were used or likely used in at least 17 military strikes during the Syrian war, the head of the international organization that investigates chemical weapons attacks told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.

Fernando Arias, director-general of The Hague, Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, said its experts came to that conclusion after investigating 77 such alleged attacks.

"It has been over 10 years that the Syrian people have suffered from war. You are well aware of this. Amongst the atrocities of the war, the grim record of this conflict includes chemical weapons use," Arias, speaking by videoconference, told the 15-nation council, which met in New York.

"Chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian Arab Republic both before and after its accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013," he said, referring to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention that banned chemical weapons and that the 193-nation OPCW was created to oversee.

"These well-documented and repeated uses," he said, "have taken place despite the successful destruction of over 1,300 tons of declared Syrian stockpiles under stringent OPCW verification measures."

In April, a majority of OPCW's member nations, in a 87-15 vote with 34 abstentions, suspended Syria's voting rights in the global organization due to its finding that the nation used chemical weapons.

The decision also condemned the use of chemical weapons as reported by OPCW, which concluded that "there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Arab Republic has used chemical weapons."

'A disturbing reality'

The council includes five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — who each wield veto power. Russia, Syria's chief ally, has maintained there are no longer any chemical weapons in Syria.

Russia's envoy to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, said on Twitter in response to the briefing by Arias that "it is not an easy task to insist on full and verifiable destruction of what does not exist."

Arias, however, said Syria's stockpiles and usage are still in question despite it signing on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits nations from producing or using such weapons.

"It is a disturbing reality that, eight years down the path, the Syrian chemical weapons dossier remains far from closed," he said, adding that OPCW's work "continues on multiple fronts."

The U.N.'s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a three-member expert panel that reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council, also looked into chemical weapons use as part of its mandate to investigate alleged human rights abuses in Syria.

It published a list in 2019, based on investigations between 2012 and 2018, indicating dozens of chemical weapons attacks were perpetrated — more than twice as many as OPCW said it has documented.

In March, the 47-nation council in Geneva — accepting the panel's conclusions — said it strongly condemned the panel's 38 documented uses of chemical weapons in Syria, including 32 that "met its proof for attribution" to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s  government and one to the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS. In the other cases, the panel could not identify the perpetrators.

"Each use of a chemical weapon amounts to a war crime," the council said, demanding that "all parties desist immediately from any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, in violation of international law."