Russia and the weapons inspectors

While awaiting the UN weapons inspectors' report on Syria yesterday I was wondering how Russia would react to it. To dismiss the inspectors' findings – by implication questioning the integrity of the investigation process – was clearly not a sensible option. On the other hand, it would be difficult for Russia to suddenly abandon its current ultra-sceptical position.

Two days after the chemical attacks – the worst since Halabja in 1988 – Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich seemed unsure whether to deny that attacks had taken place or whether to claim they had been staged anti-Assad forces for propaganda purposes. He talked about an "alleged" attack and a "so-called" attack while claiming that "materials of the incident and accusations against government troops" had been posted on the internet several hours in advance. "Thus, it was a pre-planned action," he said.

Lukashevich's argument swiftly collapsed when it became clear that the apparent discrepancies were merely the result of automated time-stamping on videos and web pages in different time zones around the world (see explanations here and here).

In a TV interview on September 3, President Putin said "it would be totally absurd" for Syrian government forces to have used chemical weapons, but stopped short of directly accusing the rebels. He said:

"We can’t say for sure what happened. We think we should at least wait for the UN inspectors to give their report. We don’t have any evidence showing that it was the regular army of the Syrian government that used those chemicals. We don’t even know at this point if those were chemical weapons or just some hazardous chemicals)."

Last Saturday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was still claiming that the attacks had been "fabricated" in order to "provoke a retaliation strike against the regime" of Bashar al-Assad.

Yesterday though, after publication of the inspectors' report, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador at the United Nations, was far more circumspect."The report is diligent but very technical," he said. "It avoids categorical judgments and inferences, and it needs to be studied."

While pointing out that the report offers no "bulletproof data or conclusions" as to who ordered the attacks, he continued: "As people examine it, everyone can draw their own conclusion, but I hope that won't be driven by political motives."

It's hard, of course, to regard Russia's position – its eagerness to exonerate the Assad regime at all costs – as driven by anything other than political motives, but we'll let that pass.

Although Russia's official line on the attacks looks increasingly unsustainable it has not been put directly on the spot because the inspectors were prevented from making "categorical judgments and inferences". Russia's best option, therefore, may be to say as little as possible from now on regarding who was responsible.

Despite the lack of judgments and inferences in the report, however, there is plenty of material for others to make inferences.

The sheer quantity of chemicals used points to a government source rather than the rebels, and Åke Sellström, head of the inspection team, has since told reporters that quality of sarin found in Ghouta was of a higher quality than that used by Saddam Hussein in Iraq's chemical weapons programme – which again points to a government producer.

The munitions linked to the attacks are known to be in the possession of the Syrian regime, while there is no credible evidence of rebel fighters having used them.

In the case of two munitions where the inspectors were able to measure their trajectories, it appears they were fired from regime-controlled territory.

One of the munitions found at the scene of the attacks was a Russian-made M14 artillery rocket which, in one version, can be fitted with a chemical warhead. The number 179 on its side links it to a production plant in Novosibirsk. 

Fortunately for Russia, this is not as embarrassing as it might seem. The rocket may have been acquired by Syria a long time ago, and possibly by corrupt means as Igor Sutyagin, a Russia expert at the Royal United Services Institute, explains in the video below.

Also, the inspectors were unable to find remains of the M14's warhead which seems to have separated from the motor section (which they did find, though it showed no traces of sarin). The report says:

"The inspectors followed the trajectory of the rocket and determined that it initially impacted the corner of the second floor of an adjacent apartment building to the east, with either the warhead functioning or shearing off from the body at that point and the motor section having sufficient kinetic energy to continue along its path to its terminal impact location."

In the absence of fragments from the warhead, the inspectors state that the rocket could have been fitted with either an "original" [Russian] or "improvised" warhead. An article on the website of Russia Today highlights the word "improvised" to suggest that the rocket could have been a rebel weapon – though that is not necessarily the implication of the inspectors' report. The regime is also capable of improvisation and rebels are not known to possess this type of rocket.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 17 September 2013