UN acts on chlorine attacks in Syria

Rather belatedly, the United Nations has taken its first concrete step towards ending impunity for chemical attacks in Syria. Although any criminal charges are still a distant prospect, the move may be aimed more immediately at halting the use of chlorine as a weapon. 

On Friday the Security Council unanimously agreed to set up a "joint investigative mechanism" to "identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical, in the Syrian Arab Republic".

This "mechanism" will operate under the joint auspices of the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Until now, UN and OPCW investigators have not been allowed to apportion blame.

Friday's Security Council decision is the result of a meeting earlier this week between US secretary of state John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and it appears to signal a shift in Russia's position.

Russia sought to blame rebel fighters for the sarin attacks near Damascus in August 2013, even though the rebels were not known to possess sarin and the weight of evidence pointed strongly towards the Assad regime's culpability (see previous blog posts, August 2013 – March 2014).

In the furore following those attacks, the Assad regime agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and the OPCW moved in to destroy its declared stockpiles and dismantle its production facilities.

Since then, however, there have been numerous reports of attacks involving chlorine. Last month, for example, 50 people were said to have been injured, eight of them critically, by a chlorine attack in the Jobar district of Damascus province.

In February, a report by the OPCW cited numerous witnesses in Syria as saying that chlorine bombs had been dropped from helicopters. If true, this would indicate that the regime was responsible, since the rebel fighters do not have helicopters.

Although chlorine itself is not classified as a chemical weapon (because it has industrial uses), its use in warfare is banned.

Friday's Security Council resolution mentions chlorine by name eight times but although it also refers to "other toxic chemicals" there is no specific mention of sarin, the chemical involved most notably in the August 2013 attacks. This raises the question of whether the UN investigation will focus on identifying the perpetrators of all chemical attacks in Syria or confine itself to chlorine attacks reported since the regime signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The text of the resolution seems ambiguous on this point (perhaps deliberately so). Given their previous attitude towards the earlier sarin attacks, it's likely the Russians will interpret it as referring only to apparent breaches of Security Council Resolution 2118, approved in September 2013 – in other words, attacks that don't involve sarin.

However, the fact that the Russians agreed to Friday's resolution suggests they may be willing to put pressure on the regime to renounce the use of chlorine.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 8 August 2015