Syria, Russia and the politics of chemical weapons

Before the war in Syria few people had heard of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and even fewer had any idea what it did. It was one of those obscure international bodies populated by anonymous technocrats, and obscurity suited it well. The general lack of interest meant it could get on with its work quietly, undisturbed (most of the time) by political controversy.

The role of the OPCW is to implement the ban on chemical weapons established in 1997 by the Chemical Weapons Convention and its success has been remarkable. Under the its supervision, 97% of the world's known stockpiles have so far been destroyed – an achievement that was recognised in 2013 by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The OPCW has also been hailed as a model of international cooperation. With a multinational staff of around 500, it is governed and funded by the Convention's 193 member states and during the first 20 years of its existence decisions on matters of substance were almost always agreed by consensus, without the need for a vote.

War in Syria, though, has broken that consensus. Numerous allegations of chemical attacks there have brought the OPCW face to face with what former Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü tactfully described as "a political reality that prevents action beyond a certain point".

Put more bluntly, a small group of countries – headed by Russia – have repeatedly sought to obstruct its investigations in connection with Syria. This has fundamental implications for the OPCW and the Chemical Weapons Convention. If investigations in Syria can be frustrated for political reasons, so can others. It's a dangerous precedent that not only jeopardises the OPCW's future effectiveness but threatens to unravel two decades of work towards eliminating chemical weapons.

Russia's ties with Syria

Russia was a founding member of the Chemical Weapons Convention but when conflict broke out in Syria its support for the Assad regime took priority. The two countries had pre-existing ties, some of which were economic. In 2010, the last year before the conflict, Russia's exports to Syria totalled $1.1 billion and its investments in the country were said to be worth $19.4 billion – a modest amount by global standards but still significant.

Russia was Syria's main arms supplier and another military connection was the port of Tartus where Russia had been operating a naval facility since the 1970s. It was small and used mainly for supply and maintenance but it was the Russian navy's only toehold in the Mediterranean.

In addition, when the war came Russia viewed the Islamist opposition fighters as a potential threat to its own security. There were fears that spillover from Syria in the form of jihadists and weaponry could lead to unrest among Muslims in the Caucasus.

However, those factors don't fully explain why Russia became so heavily invested in supporting the Assad regime: there were geopolitical considerations too. Russia was seeking to reassert itself as a world power and engagement in Syria created an opportunity to do so.

The Syrian conflict arose out of the Arab Spring uprisings that began at the end of 2010. These triggered the fall of long-established autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; in Bahrain the protests were crushed and in Syria, where they had turned into an armed struggle, Assad was beleaguered but still clinging on.

Russia's view of the Arab Spring was generally negative. It wasn't much concerned about civil and political rights and saw western support for them as an infringement of national sovereignty. Russia was especially irked by the turn of events in Libya where, having stood aside as Nato-led forces joined in the overthrow of Colonel Gadafi, it ended up feeling out-manoeuvred.

Partly in response to that, when Vladimir Putin became president again in 2012 he set the country on a more assertive course. As Russia sought to enlarge its role on the world stage Syria became a vehicle for confronting western influence and, as it turned out, the investigation of chemical attacks became part of that too.

Outlawing chemical weapons

Toxic chemicals have been used in conflicts since ancient times, probably starting with poison-tipped arrows and spears, and there are accounts from centuries ago of armies using smoke or noxious fumes to suffocate enemies or force them to retreat.

Nevertheless, chemical weapons have often been regarded as an especially cruel and "uncivilised" form of warfare and there have been various attempts to restrict their use. The first international move in that direction came in 1675 when France and the Holy Roman Empire signed an agreement prohibiting poisoned bullets. Almost 200 years later the 1874 Brussels Convention on the Law and Customs of War sought to ban poisons and weapons that "cause unnecessary suffering" but it never came into force.

The first multilateral effort to establish "laws and customs of war" came with the two Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 which included a commitment to "abstain from the use of projectiles, the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases".

With the outbreak of the First World War, however, the Hague Conventions were widely flouted. More than 90,000 soldiers died as a result of chemical attacks and almost a million suffered horrible injuries. Revulsion at this led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol which banned the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. However, the Geneva Protocol stopped short of banning the production or stockpiling of such weapons, and that problem was finally addressed by the Chemical Weapons Convention which came into force in 1997.

The aim of the Convention is to eliminate chemical weapons completely by prohibiting their development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use. It operates mainly by consent rather than coercion. Countries that join the Convention voluntarily agree to destroy any stockpiles they hold, along with the production facilities. They also agree not to allow any non-governmental activity on their territory – for example, by chemical firms – that conflicts with the Convention. Currently, only four countries – Egypt, North Korea, Angola and South Sudan – have neither signed nor ratified the Convention and two others – Israel and Myanmar – have signed but not ratified.

On joining the Convention, new member-countries must declare any stockpiles and production facilities and destroy them under OPCW supervision.

Besides verifying that declared weapons have been destroyed, the OPCW tries to verify that declaration are truthful – that nothing has been hidden – and after that there are periodic inspections to check that prohibited chemical work has not been re-started. Even in countries that had no such weapons when they joined the Convention there are regular inspections of the chemical industry.

Since joining the Convention is a matter of choice, the working assumption is that member states agree with its aims and are sincere in their intentions. Syria was a different case, though. When conflict broke out in 2011 it was not a member of the Convention and when it eventually joined in 2013 it did so under duress.

First chemical attacks in Syria

Syria's first public admission that it had chemical weapons came in July 2012 when foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the regime would never use them against the Syrian people or civilians "under any circumstances". Such weapons, he added, were "made to be used strictly and only in the event of external aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic”.

Despite that assurance, there were several reports of chemical attacks in Syria during the ensuing months and in March 2013 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent a mission to investigate. It was headed by Åke Sellström, a Swedish chemical weapons expert, and had technical support from the OPCW.

Three days after the mission arrived in Damascus there was a further chemical attack. Several hundred people died when rockets laden with the nerve agent sarin struck Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of the capital. The investigators switched their attention to this new attack and concluded that chemical weapons had been used in Ghouta "on a relatively large scale", prompting Ban Ki-moon to denounce it as a war crime and a "grave violation" of the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

Russian obfuscation

Given that the Syrian government had admitted possessing chemical weapons and that Ghouta was a rebel-held area under attack by government forces when the sarin rockets struck, there was one very obvious suspect. But Russia, as the Assad regime's most important ally, had other ideas.

Its first response was to question whether anything untoward had actually happened. Under the headline "Syria gas attack story has whiff of Saudi war propaganda", an article on Russia's RT website claimed international media had "picked up" the story from a Saudi TV channel which was "not a neutral in the Syrian conflict". Conflicting figures about the number of casualties were "making the story more fishy by the minute", the article said, suggesting that the news reports should "be taken with a dose of salt".

Meanwhile on the internet claims began circulating that Syrian rebels had faked the chemical attack in order to blame the regime for it. Islamic Invitation Turkey, a website with links to Iran and Hizbullah, claimed that videos of the dead and injured had been uploaded to YouTube on the day before the attack. This, it said, was evidence "that the terrorists massacred people then recorded the scenes to deceive people of the world" but in their rush to spread the story had given themselves away by releasing the videos prematurely.

Russia was quick to adopt the idea. “We’re getting more new evidence that this criminal act was of a provocative nature,” foreign ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said. “There are reports circulating on the internet, in particular that the materials of the incident and accusations against government troops had been posted for several hours before the so-called attack. Thus, it was a pre-planned action.”

The Russians, however, had not bothered to check. Had they done so they would have found a very simple explanation for the apparent discrepancy in timing. It was the result of automated time-stamping on videos and web pages in different parts of the world. The YouTube videos, for example, showed the time in California when they were uploaded – which was ten hours earlier than the time in Syria.

Russian obfuscation continued even after the UN investigators' report was published a few weeks later. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged that chemical weapons had been used in Ghouta but said Russia still suspected rebel forces were behind the attack.

He went on to say that the UN report failed to answer a number of questions, including whether the weapons were produced in a factory or home-made. He suggested the report should be examined not in isolation but along with evidence from sources such as the internet and other media, including accounts from "nuns at a nearby convent" and a journalist who had spoken to rebels.

None of this additional "evidence" bore serious scrutiny, but it didn't much matter if the claims promoted by Russia were speculative or even wrong, so long as there were plenty of them. The point was not to persuade people that any particular claim was true but to cast doubt on the most obvious explanation by suggesting it was just one among several competing theories.

Obama's red line

A year before the Ghouta attack President Obama had warned that chemical weapons were a red line as far as the US was concerned. At the time he didn't elaborate on what would happen if the line was crossed, and when the Ghouta attack came it put him on the spot.

While supporting opposition to Assad inside Syria, Obama had been reluctant to commit American forces directly, and this was broadly in line with public opinion which showed little appetite for war.

In considering what to do about Ghouta, Obama insisted that any action should focus on chemical weapons rather than the wider conflict. "The world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons," he said, adding:

"In no event are we considering any kind of military action that would involve boots on the ground; that would involve a long-term campaign. But we are looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria, but others around the world, understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm."

Even with that relatively limited military objective, Obama found himself not only struggling to gain approval from Congress but also lacking support from key international allies. In Britain the Cameron government's plans to take part in any US-led military action were rejected by parliament and a few days later France said it would await the UN investigators' report before making a decision. Furthermore, Russian opposition to punitive airstrikes meant there was no prospect of the UN Security Council authorising them; Russia had already used its veto three times in connection with the Syrian conflict and looked set to do so again.

Russian cooperation

In the event, though, Obama's dilemma was resolved with Russian help. This might seem surprising in view of Russia's attitude in the Security Council but while Russian and American interests diverged over Syria they converged in a general way over chemical weapons – despite Russia's attempts to deny that Assad was using them.

Russia and the US had been among the first countries to join the Convention and, having renounced chemical weapons themselves, both had an interest in encouraging others to follow suit: neither of them wanted a situation where their forces might be exposed to such weapons. At the time the Convention was drafted attention centred mainly on chemical weapons in the hands of states. Since then, though, there had been a growing awareness of the need to prevent non-state actors – such as terrorist groups – from acquiring them, and in that connection the security of Syria's stockpile in the midst of turmoil was a concern for both countries.

As it happened, Russia was due to host a G20 summit in St Petersburg on 5-6 September, a couple of weeks after Ghouta, and Obama had a private meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the summit. What transpired between them is unknown but just as the summit was getting under way American media reported an idea floated by two senators – of holding off military action for 45 days to give Syria an opportunity to renounce chemical weapons and sign the Convention.

Three days after the summit ended the idea of Syria joining the Convention surfaced again. US Secretary of State John Kerry was asked by a reporter whether there was anything Assad could do to avert a military strike, and he replied:

“Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it], but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done.”

Kerry insisted this was just an off-the-cuff remark but the speed of the Russian and Syrian reactions suggests it had not come as a total surprise to either of them. Both countries instantly welcomed it, treating it as a formal proposal.

This proved especially timely for Obama as he had not only got into a difficult position over the chemical weapons crisis but was due to give a televised address about it next day. Fortunately for him, as a result of this development, he was able to announce that because of "some encouraging signs" he had asked Congress "to postpone a vote to authorise the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path".

In his TV address, Obama explained that the Russian government had "indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons" and that the Assad regime had "even said they join the Chemical Weapons Convention". He added that this had happened in part because of "constructive talks that I had with President Putin". He did not elaborate on the talks, though the obvious implication was that they occurred at the G20 in St Petersburg.

In a Russian TV interview shortly afterwards, however, foreign minister Lavrov said "the idea of putting Syrian chemical weapons under international control" had started more than a year earlier when Obama and Putin had a private two-hour discussion on Syria during a G20 summit in Mexico.

Although news reports at the time suggested the talks in Mexico achieved little, according to Lavrov Syria's chemical weapons were one area of agreement. Both sides, he said, had expressed serious concern that they might fall into the hands of "the wrong people" and had agreed to "regular exchange of opinions and information" on that issue.

“We worked directly with the Syrians in order to understand how safe [the arsenals] were," he said. "The US side – and we can openly speak about that now – also contacted the Syrian government more than once for updating information."

Dismantling Syria's weapons

Syria duly joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and, as required by the rules, submitted a declaration listing the banned chemicals and related equipment in its possession. The task of destroying them then got under way and, considering the situation in Syria at the time, progressed remarkably smoothly. In 2014 the OPCW announced that all chemicals declared by the regime had been removed from Syria though there was still work to be done destroying chemical facilities.

The word "declared" was important because the initial declaration – as the regime later acknowledged – was incomplete. During the last few years numerous amendments have been made to the original document in the light of inspectors' discoveries and by 2019 the OPCW had still not accepted the revised declaration as complete. There remained "gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies" (to use the official phrase).

UN-OPCW coordination

In sending Sellström's mission to Ghouta, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was basically following precedent. There had been similar investigations during the Iran-Iraq war and several UN resolutions from the 1980s indicated that the Secretary-General was the person to initiate them.

In the case of the Ghouta investigation the stated legal basis was General Assembly resolution 42/37C from 1987 and Security Council resolution 620 from 1988. In effect, both resolutions empowered the Secretary-General to investigate any suspected use of chemical weapons and both included the key phrase "in order to ascertain the facts of the matter" – which is generally interpreted as limiting investigations to the question of whether a chemical weapon was used, but not the question of who might have used it.

The General Assembly resolution had also asked the Secretary-General to "develop further technical guidelines and procedures" for such investigations and to maintain lists of experts who could be called upon at short notice, plus laboratories that could be used for testing samples.

At the time of those resolutions, of course, neither the Chemical Weapons Convention nor the OPCW had yet come into existence. Between the Iran/Iraq investigations of the 1980s and the Ghouta investigation of 2013, however, the UN and OPCW had agreed on a division of responsibilities. The agreement, which took effect in 2001, recognised the OPCW as the organisation "responsible for activities to achieve the comprehensive prohibition of chemical weapons in accordance with the Convention" – but within a "working relationship" with the UN.

The two organisations were to cooperate and coordinate in order to avoid "unnecessary duplication of their activities and services" and, in line with this, the OPCW provided technical support regarding Ghouta.

There was also a provision in the Chemical Weapons Convention indicating that the UN, rather than the OPCW, should lead the Ghouta investigation. It said:

"In the case of alleged use of chemical weapons involving a state not party to this Convention or in territory not controlled by a state party, the Organisation shall closely cooperate with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. If so requested, the Organisation shall put its resources at the disposal of the Secretary-General of the United Nations."

The important point here is that the article referred specifically to countries that were not members of the Convention (as was the case with Syria at the time of the Ghouta attack). Once Syria joined the Convention, however, it ceased to apply – hence the use of the OPCW's Fact-Finding Mission for subsequent investigations.

More attacks, more investigations

Starting in April 2014, there were reports of further chemical attacks in Syria which brought the OPCW into the centre of the picture. As the number of allegations multiplied there was clearly a need for a more formalised investigative mechanism – and the OPCW was best equipped to provide it.

Against that background, the OPCW's Director-General, Ahmet Üzümcü, announced the creation of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM). In practical terms this meant the OPCW would now take charge of investigations, with UN support, rather than the other way round as happened with the Ghouta mission.

Technically, creation of the FFM was an executive decision based on Üzümcü's personal authority to "seek to uphold at all times the object and purpose of the Chemical Weapons Convention", though the OPCW said it was "reinforced" by previous "relevant decisions" of the executive council and Security Council resolution 2118 issued seven months earlier.

Üzümcü had also secured prior approval from the UN Secretary-General. Three days before making the announcement he had met Ban Ki-moon who promised UN help with security, logistical, and operational aspects of the FFM in order to ensure "the safe access and movement of OPCW personnel, any accompanying United Nations personnel, and their equipment and samples". No less importantly, Syria made the FFM viable by agreeing to grant it access and accepting the terms of its mandate.

Gathering evidence

The FFM's first task was to investigate allegations of chlorine use in three Syrian villages – Talmenes, al-Tamanah, and Kafr Zita. Because chlorine has multiple civilian uses, possession of it is not specifically banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention and the regime was under no obligation to declare it to the OPCW. Chlorine does, however, become a banned weapon if produced or used with the intention of causing "death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action".

Operating under war conditions, the FFM faced considerable difficulties – especially regarding access. Despite having received assurances from both sides in the conflict, when the FFM tried to visit Kafr Zita in May 2014 its convoy came under attack and it was forced to turn back.

Nevertheless, the FFM continued gathering evidence from a variety of sources and the following September it reported "compelling" evidence that a toxic chemical had been used as a weapon "systematically and repeatedly", and concluded "with a high degree of confidence" that chlorine, either pure or in mixture, was the toxic chemical in question (the detailed findings are here).

Since then the FFM's reports have become a regular feature of the Syrian conflict. Between June 2014 and March 2019 it produced 17 of them and its investigations into other alleged attacks are continuing.

The brief of the Fact-Finding Mission, as its name indicates, is to "establish facts" surrounding the allegations of chemical attacks in Syria. However, in line with the mandate of previous missions conducted under UN auspices (by Sellström in Syria, and elsewhere during the 1980s), it is not empowered to attribute blame.

Even though the FFM's reports don't blame anyone their findings have been frequently challenged by defenders of the Assad regime, both in Moscow and online. Two reports in particular, regarding chemical use in Khan Sheikhoun (2017) and Douma (2018), have been raked over at great length on social media, since these were the two incidents that resulted in US-led military reprisals against the regime.

In the case of Khan Sheikhoun the FFM found that "a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin" and said the sarin was "likely" to have been released from a spot where there was a crater in a road. The report concluded that "based on such a release, the only determination that could be made was that sarin had been used as a weapon". In Douma the FFM concluded there were "reasonable grounds" for believing a toxic chemical had been used as a weapon. The chemical in question, it said, contained reactive chlorine and was likely to have been molecular chlorine.

As with other reported attacks, the regime's defenders blamed rebel fighters and accused them of trying to incriminate the regime. Opinions varied as to how the rebels might have done it. Some favoured hoax theories where rebels contrived the appearance of a chemical attack when there was none; others talked of "false flag" operations involving actual chemical weapons. In a few cases there were also claims that a toxic chemical was released accidentally by conventional bombs hitting chemicals stored on the ground, such as fertiliser or chlorine intended for water purification.

The question of blame

Limiting the FFM to "establishing facts" about chemical attacks left open the question of who was to blame for them, so in August 2015 the UN Security Council decided – unanimously – to set up a Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). Its purpose was 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".

The JIM's activities were confined to those cases where the FFM had already determined that chemical weapons were used or likely to have been used, and its task was to examine all available evidence with view to assigning culpability. However, the JIM was not a judicial body; it could identify suspects but had no power to take action against them.

After several months trawling through the evidence and considering how to go about its task, the JIM decided to focus on nine specific cases and in August 2016 reported its first findings, attributing three of the chemical attacks to Syrian government forces and a fourth one – involving sulfur mustard – to Islamic State fighters.

The Assad regime responded with a 17-page critique complaining about the JIM's reliance on "unprofessional and politicised" reports by the Fact-Finding Mission and asserting that chlorine was an "antiquated" weapon which the regime had no reason to use.

Operating under the joint auspices of the UN and the OPCW, the JIM had initially been given a one-year mandate. As its first year came to an end there was work still to be done and wrangling broke out over an extension. The US argued that the JIM must be allowed to continue because it was the only body with the power to identify those involved in the use of chemicals as weapons. Even if its impact was small, it had reduced the number of attacks and was thus saving lives, the US said.

Russia was reluctant but on this occasion did not oppose an extension. However, in an apparent move to deflect attention away from the Assad regime, Russia's UN representative, Vitaly Churkin, highlighted the threat from chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists and called for the JIM's scope to be extended beyond Syria. It was crucial, Churkin said, that the JIM should not be used as a tool to criticise the Syrian government.

While the resulting Security Council resolution continued to focus solely on Syria it did go some way towards acknowledging Russia's concerns about terrorism. It "encouraged" the JIM to "consult appropriate United Nations counter-terrorism and non-proliferation bodies ... in order to exchange information on non-state actor perpetration, organisation, sponsorship, or other involvement in use of chemicals as weapons". It also "invited" the JIM to "engage relevant regional states in pursuit of its mandate, including in order to identify to the greatest extent feasible any individuals, entities or groups associated with ISIL (Da’esh) or ANF [Al-Nusra Front] who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons". The resolution made clear, however, that these counter-terrorism provisions applied only to chemical attacks in Syria.

With its mandate extended for a further twelve months, the JIM took up two new cases identified by the FFM. One was the sarin attack in Khan Sheikoun which, according to reports at the time, killed at least 74 people and injured hundreds more. The other was a mustard gas attack in Um Housh, in Idlib province, the previous September which injured two women.

In what turned out to be its final report, the JIM blamed ISIS/Daesh for the Um Housh attack and the Syrian government for Khan Sheikhoun. Reviewing the two cases in tandem helped to give an appearance of even-handedness but Russia had already rejected the FFM's version of events in Khan Sheikhoun on which the JIM based its findings.

Three weeks before the JIM issued its report Russia sent the UN Secretary-General a critique of the FFM's report on Khan Sheikhoun, ostensibly to "help" the JIM avoid repeating the FFM's "mistakes". The covering letter said:

"Looking forward to the final report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, we express the hope that the Mechanism will be able to strictly adhere to appropriate methodology and avoid hasty and groundless conclusions not supported by robust evidence, as well as factual, detailed and comprehensive justification. All possible leads and scenarios should be meticulously examined."

It's hard to imagine the Secretary-General reading this without some amusement, since nobody had done more to spread "hasty and groundless conclusions" about chemical weapons in Syria than the Russians. And, innocuous as it might sound to call for "all possible leads and scenarios" to be meticulously examined, the sort of leads and scenarios Russia had in mind were those favoured by its own propaganda channels and "alternative" websites.

End of the JIM – and a new British plan

Not surprisingly, when the JIM's mandate next came up for renewal in November 2017 Russia used its veto and the JIM ceased to exist. But that was not the end of attempts to identify chemical weapon users.

At a conference on disarmament the following May, UN Secretary-General António Guterres accused the Security Council of failing to meet its responsibility regarding chemical weapons. "We cannot allow continued impunity in Syria or elsewhere," he said, and called for the creation of "a new and impartial mechanism to identify those who use them."

A few days later Britain proposed an alternative route for identifying users: through the OPCW, where no one had a veto. With support from Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Romania and the United States, it requested a special session of the OPCW's ultimate governing body, the Conference of the States Parties.

The Conference of the States Parties normally meets once a year, and calling a special session was an unusual and controversial procedure – there had only been three previous special sessions during the OPCW's 21-year history. Despite some objections, notably from Russia and Iran, there was enough support from other members and it went ahead in June 2018.

The meeting considered a British-inspired resolution instructing the OPCW to "put in place arrangements to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic by identifying and reporting on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons". This would apply only to cases where the FFM found that an attack had occurred, or was likely to have occurred, and where the JIM had not already issued a report. The resolution did not specify any particular mechanism for identifying perpetrators but asked the OPCW's Director-General to come up with proposals.

Russia, having been unable to block the special session, came up with a counter-proposal. This sought to divest the Director-General of his power to establish "special missions" (such as the FFM) and put it in the collective hands of member-states through the Conference of the States Parties and the OPCW's executive council. Although the Director-General would still have "operational control" of the missions, member states would not only have the exclusive power to establish them but also to "determine their mandate, operational parameters, and their composition ... with due regard to equal geographical representation".

Russia presented this as way to enhance the "efficiency" of OPCW missions but its proposal, if accepted, would almost certainly have had the opposite effect by increasing the scope for political meddling. It was easy to foresee the difficulties in getting investigative missions under way if member states were allowed to wrangle over their "operational parameters" and staff appointments. Talk of "equal geographical representation" was also problematic because it appeared to prioritise the nationality of investigators over expertise in what, after all, was a highly specialised field.

Russia eventually withdrew its proposal. As expected, there was no consensus on the British-initiated proposal and it had to be put to a vote. The result – with 82 votes in favour and 24 against – comfortably met the Convention's requirement of a two-thirds majority among those present and voting but, as Russia pointed out, the large number of absentees and abstentions meant it had been supported by less than half the total membership.

Seeking a delay

The divisions seen at the special session in June continued at the next regular session of the Conference of the States Parties in November when Georgy Kalamanov, head of Russian delegation, questioned the "legitimacy" of using the OPCW to attribute responsibility. Attribution, he said, was not provided for in the Chemical Weapons Convention, went "beyond the scope" of the OPCW's responsibilities and also encroached on the prerogative of the UN Security Council (where Russia could use its veto).

On that basis, Russia and China called for the formation of "an open-ended group of experts" to consider whether giving the OPCW an attributive function was in line with the Convention. This looked suspiciously like a delaying tactic, and the proposal was rejected by 82 votes to 30.

There was nothing in the Convention to say the OPCW couldn't attribute responsibility for chemical attacks and several parts of the Convention suggested it could. For example, a section on investigations into the use of chemical weapons said that if an inspection team collects "any information in the course of its investigation that might serve to identify the origin of any chemical weapons used, that information shall be included in the report". Another section gave the Conference of the States Parties wide powers to act in promotion of the "object and purpose" of the Convention and, since this included taking decisions "on any questions, matters or issues" relating to the Convention, establishing an attribution merchanism appeared to be well within its remit.

Resistance from Syria

One of the tasks of the November conference was to approve the OPCW's budget for 2019 which included a reported $2.4 million for the attribution mechanism – now officially known as the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). Unhappy about this, Russia and Iran put forward a series of amendments but these were defeated and the budget was eventually approved by 99 votes to 27.

With funding in place, the OPCW began recruiting and by May 2019 the IIT's eight-person core team was complete. Its head was Santiago Oñate Laborde, a Mexican lawyer who was formerly the country's representative at the OPCW and had also acted as a legal adviser to the organisation (he can be seen here giving a lecture on the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2015).

As the team prepared to start work, an internal briefing document circulated towards the end of May set out their next steps:

1. Prioritise incidents to be investigated; finalise principles of operation and working methodologies.
2. Start investigations; secure cooperation from states parties and other relevant stakeholders.
3. Start analysis and verification of evidentiary materials.

The sticking point here lay in the second of these steps: securing cooperation from states parties – in particular Syria. Without that, the IIT would be severely limited in what it could achieve.

On taking over as Director-General of the OPCW in July 2018, Fernando Arias had sought to establish "a new and open dialogue" with the Syrian authorities on what were described as "issues of interest". These included the working methods of the Fact-Finding Mission, the "gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies" in Syria's still-unverified chemical weapons declaration, and "upcoming tasks" of the IIT.

Between October 2018 and April 2019, five apparently constructive meetings took place in Damascus, Beirut and The Hague. The next meeting was scheduled for 8-10 May in Damascus but a couple of weeks before it was due to take place Arias received a letter from the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, saying that Syria did not recognise the IIT and, consequently, would not be granting a visa to Oñate, the coordinator. In two subsequent letters Mekdad went further, saying Syria would not give IIT members access to "any confidential information" relating to chemical weapons.

Arias wrote back saying that as Director-General he had an obligation to implement the decision that established the IIT and that Syria, as a party to the Convention, was obliged to do so as well. He asked Mekdad to reconsider but decided to postpone the scheduled talks in Damascus, offering instead to receive a delegation in The Hague "in order to solve this issue".

That is where it stands at the time of writing, with Syria openly refusing to cooperate with the IIT.

'Unfit to investigate'

As a result of all this, the OPCW faces a series of unaccustomed challenges that strike at the core of its existence – one of which is a concerted attack on its credibility. The reports of its investigations are meant to be trustworthy sources of information but there are continual efforts to undermine that perception – mostly orchestrated by Russia.

The techniques are familiar and have been used by Russia in other situations, for example in its response to the shooting down of flight MH17 with a Russian missile over Ukraine in 2014 and in its defence against accusations of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent in Britain in 2018.

As in Syria with the chemical attacks, Russia promoted multiple conflicting theories about the Skripal affair – almost any theory, so long as it did not implicate Russia. Also as in Syria, Russian theories about the Skripals generally favoured "false flag" explanations, suggesting the British government had poisoned them in order to blame Russia. Why Britain would want to pick a quarrel with Russia was less clear but one suggestion from the Russian foreign ministry was that Britain was "unable to forgive Russia for winning the right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup in a fair struggle".

At the centre of Russia's disinformation efforts is the government-owned television channel, RT which constantly tells viewers they are being lied to and deceived by western governments and media. The channel's slogan is "Question More", and while this might give the impression it is simply encouraging healthy scepticism, RT's purpose is not to get closer to the truth but to sow as much doubt as possible.

RT often draws on social media discourse among western conspiracy theorists and, in the case of Syria, leftist elements whose view of the Assad regime as a victim of western imperialism leads them to support the idea of faked or false flag chemical attacks. The regime's online defenders are not especially numerous but they are vociferous and very persistent. Much of their effort has gone into criticising the Fact-Finding Mission's investigations but recently the online activity has taken a slightly different turn by attacking the OPCW directly – as an institution.

In April 2019 the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a quasi-academic group which not only defends the Assad regime against accusations of using chemical weapons but also disputes Russia's use of a nerve agent against the Skripals, denounced the OPCW as unfit to carry out its new attribution role.

The group published a 7,000-word critique of the FFM's final report on Douma which it said "discredits OPCW as a source of impartial investigation and undermines it as an international institution". It continued:

"On the evidence of this and the defects we have identified in previous reports of Fact-Finding Missions, OPCW is not fit to be entrusted with a remit 'to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic' ...

"It is doubtful whether the organisations’s reputation as an impartial monitor of compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention can be restored without radical reform of its governance and working practices."

The Henderson document

A further challenge to the OPCW's credibility came a month or so later when a leaked internal document – an “engineering assessment” relating to the Douma investigation – surfaced on the internet. Written by OPCW staff member Ian Henderson it was marked “draft for internal review” and “do not circulate”, and suggested that two gas cylinders found in Douma had been “manually placed”. This conflicted with the official report of the investigation – based on the conclusions of three independent experts – which implied they had been dropped from the air (though it did not explicitly say so).

The idea that the cylinders were “manually placed” could be interpreted as support for long-standing claims by Russia and the Syrian government that there was no chemical attack in Douma and that rebels planted the cylinders in order to falsely accuse the regime. On the other hand, the "air-dropped" hypothesis (favoured by western powers) implied the regime must be responsible because the rebels did not have aircraft.

Since there was no mention of Henderson's conclusions in the official FFM report, defenders of the regime – believing Henderson was right and the OPCW's independent experts were wrong – claimed there had been a plot to suppress the truth.

The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, which published the leaked document, saw it as evidence that the OPCW had been "hijacked at the top by France, UK and the US”. The explanation given later by the OPCW was that the Henderson's assessment went too far towards attributing responsibility and thus fell outside the FFM's strictly fact-finding mandate. However, it did fall within the remit of the new Investigation and Identification Team and, according to Director-General Arias, Henderson agreed to pass it to them so that they could make use of it.

A few weeks after the document leak the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media issued a 8,400-word "briefing paper" claiming the OPCW's Douma investigation had been "nobbled". It called for an "independent re-examination" of all previous investigations in Syria, and "a radical reform" of the OPCW's governance and procedures.

A question of trust

The rules and regulations for working at the OPCW run to 69 pages and are very strict. As international civil servants, the employees have international responsibilities. They are expected to set aside national ties and any political sympathies while serving the OPCW.

New staff take an oath of loyalty, promising to act "with the interests of the organisation only in view", and not to "seek or accept instructions" from any government or other authority. While employed there they are not allowed to speak to the media, give talks or write about their work without permission. Even after leaving they are not allowed to disclose any information gleaned while working at the OPCW unless it has already been made public.

One purpose of the rules is to protect the integrity and independence of investigations by shielding staff from interference at an operational level, and the need for these precautions is more than theoretical. At a news conference in 2017 Edmond Mulet, head the joint UN/OPCW investigative team (JIM), spoke of multiple attempts to influence its work.

"We find ourselves in a highly politicised environment," he said. "I appeal to all ... to let us perform our work in an impartial, independent and professional manner." He continued:

"We do receive – unfortunately – direct and indirect messages all the time from many sides telling us how to do our work. And some of those messages are very clear in saying that if we don't do our work according to them – these different visions – then they will not accept the conclusions of our work."

Asked if the messages were coming from one country or several countries, he replied that they were coming "from everywhere", adding: "It's more than one but less than 20, so it's still quite a lot of different sectors and interested parties, certainly."

Snoopers in the car park

In April 2018, four Russian intelligence agents were caught trying to hack into the OPCW's wifi system from a car park next to its headquarters in the Netherlands. According to Director-General Arias this was not the first time the OPCW had been targeted – there had been cyber attacks since the beginning of the year – and the OPCW has recently established a special fund for "cyber security".

The Russian agents had arrived in the Netherlands on diplomatic passports so they were quietly expelled rather than being arrested and it was several months before the story became public.

Examination of a laptop found in their car pointed to its previous use for hacking operations on matters of interest to Russia. In September 2016 it had logged into the wifi system at a hotel in Switzerland where the World Anti-Doping Agency was holding a conference. The laptop had also been used in Kuala Lumpur in December 2017, apparently trying to glean information about the investigation into flight MH17 – the Malaysian airliner shot down by a Russian missile.

Lab report leaked

Another discovery from the laptop was that someone had recently used it to gather information about one of the OPCW's designated laboratories – the Spiez laboratory in Switzerland. Furthermore, tickets found in the agents' possession showed they had been planning to travel to Switzerland after completing their task in the Netherlands.

The Spiez lab was one of four commissioned by the OPCW to analyse biomedical samples in connection with the Skripal poisoning. In line with the confidentiality rules, states parties were not told which labs had been chosen and were not shown the full analysis reports but somehow Russia had found out.

On 14 April (a day after the car park incident) foreign minister Lavrov made a dramatic claim which appeared to exonerate Russia of involvement in the Skripal affair. Reading from the Spiez lab's report, he said it had detected "traces" of BZ – a chemical that incapacitates people but is not normally lethal. Based on that, Lavrov suggested the Skripals had been poisoned with BZ rather than a Novichok nerve agent as Britain and the OPCW maintained.

Russia's Sputnik News noted that BZ had been developed by a Swiss pharmaceutical company in 1951 and later used in the armed forces of the US, Britain and other Nato member states. "More importantly," it said, "BZ has never been produced in the Russian Federation or on the territory of the USSR." It also pointed out that the OPCW's report on the lab tests had "not made a single reference to the Spiez laboratory's discovery".

While it was true that the lab had detected a BZ precursor, the were good reasons why the OPCW's report did not mention it. Russia had jumped to the wrong conclusion about its relevance. A few days later the OPCW explained that it had no connection with the Skripals: the substance was part of a control sample to check that labs were doing their job properly.

Confidentiality versus transparency

Without confidentiality the OPCW cannot function effectively. In order to verify compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, it needs access to information that may be militarily or commercially sensitive. Governments and businesses will be reluctant to disclose this unless they are sure it will be kept safe and not misused. The OPCW itself may also need to withhold information acquired during investigations if, for example, it is incomplete or unconfirmed.

For those reasons the Convention has a 23-article Annex on the Protection of Confidential Information and the OPCW itself has a Policy on Confidentiality, a Confidentiality Commission and an Office of Confidentiality and Security.

The Convention's annex requires the OPCW to operate "a stringent regime governing the handling of confidential information" and says "all data and documents obtained by the Technical Secretariat shall be evaluated ... in order to establish whether they contain confidential information".

Information is treated as confidential if its unauthorised release could "cause damage" to the Convention's implementation mechanisms or the state to which it refers.

Confidentiality can sometimes be taken to extreme lengths at the request of member states. One absurd example was South Korea's refusal to be named after deciding to give up its chemical weapons. As a result, it appears anonymously as "another State Party" in the OPCW's list of countries that have destroyed their declared stockpiles.

Paradoxically, maintaining trust in the OPCW as an organisation also requires transparency. Member states, after all, want assurance that their fellow members are complying with the Convention – and that means giving them information. In the past, the balance between confidentiality and transparency was mainly of interest to governments but the Syria investigations, and the politics surrounding them, have made it much more of a public issue.

The OPCW does make some efforts to be transparent. There are almost 20,000 public files on its website and its final report on the Douma investigation, including numerous annexes, ran to more than 27,000 words.

Even so, there's much that the public don't see, and this creates scope for claims of manipulation behind the scenes. One unseen part – and the subject of recent controversy – is the way FFM reports are compiled. Director-General Arias has described the process in broad terms in connection with the Douma investigation:

"As is the case with all FFM investigations, the Secretariat encourages serious and professional debates within, so all views, analysis, information and opinions are considered ... all available information was examined, weighed and deliberated. Diverse views were expressed, discussed and considered against the overall facts and evidence collected and analysed."

That sounds like a sensible approach. A free and frank exchange of ideas inside the office should lead to a robust report, but it needs to take place in private. Without confidentiality the discussion would be much more inhibited. The downside, though, is that the public have no way of knowing how the "diverse views" that Arias speaks of were eventually reconciled to produced a single "official" view – and this opens the door to speculation.

There's a similar problem when the OPCW consults outside experts. In the Douma investigation, for example, three independent analyses were commissioned in connection with the metal cylinders found at the scene and their conclusions were incorporated into the final report – but without details of how the anonymous experts had arrived at them.

Technical analyses of this kind are treated as confidential because publishing them could lead to the experts being identified and – potentially – result in attempts to influence them. As far as the OPCW is concerned it should be sufficient to say (as it did with the Douma report) that the experts were internationally recognised for their knowledge, skills, and experience, that they came from three different countries, worked separately using different methodologies – and all eventually came to the same conclusions.

But persuasive as that might have been in the past, inviting people to trust the authority of experts provides more fuel for today's online conspiracy theorists.

This has put the OPCW on the defensive and there are some signs that it is now being dragged – reluctantly – into engaging with its critics. At a meeting of the Executive Council in April 2018 Director-General Arias set out the official position very clearly:

"I wish to take this opportunity to emphasise the policy followed by the Secretariat with regards to public statements made by officials of individual states parties. The Secretariat will not respond publicly to such statements even if these are critical of the OPCW’s work. I do not think it is in the interest of the organisation that the Secretariat gets involved in public discussions with states parties."

A year later, however, the OPCW was forced into doing what it had said it would never do after Russia and Syria submitted written critiques of the Douma report. Normally correspondence between member states and the OPCW would remain private but on this occasion Russia asked for its critique to be published "as an official-series document of the Ninetieth Session of the OPCW Executive Council". This obliged the OPCW to publish a detailed reply, thus breaking its own rule of not engaging in public debate.

The leaking of the Henderson document also pushed the organisation into territory where it had not intended to go. The initial response from its press office to media enquiries was terse and uninformative:

"Per OPCW rules and regulations, and in order to ensure the privacy, safety, and security of personnel, the OPCW does not provide information about individual staff members of the Technical Secretariat.

"Pursuant to its established policies and practices, the OPCW Technical Secretariat is conducting an internal investigation about the unauthorised release of the document in question.

"At this time, there is no further public information on this matter and the OPCW is unable to accommodate requests for interviews."

This did nothing to dampen speculation and almost a month passed before the OPCW published a 500-word statement from Arias giving the official version of what happened.

That is not to suggest there is no legitimate place for scrutiny of the OPCW's activities; they are a matter of public interest even if it's difficult to draw a precise line between the needs of confidentiality and transparency. Currently, though, most of the public debate brings confusion rather than clarity – and for some that is the aim. Russia and Syria may claim to be seeking the truth but their objectives are fundamentally political. Similarly with the online activists who dispute the investigators' findings.

Breaking the consensus

The other serious challenge confronting the OPCW is the rift among its member states over Syria. Organisations of this kind need consensus if they are to work effectively, and the Chemical Weapons Convention emphasises that point in its rules for the conduct of OPCW business. It says decisions on "matters of substance" should be taken "as far as possible" by consensus among the member states, and goes on to say:

"If consensus is not attainable when an issue comes up for decision, the chairman shall defer any vote for 24 hours and during this period of deferment shall make every effort to facilitate achievement of consensus ... If consensus is not possible at the end of 24 hours, the conference shall take the decision by a two-thirds majority of members present and voting."

Before disagreements broke out over Syria consensus had generally been maintained, apart from a crisis in 2002 during the run-up to war in Iraq, when the US embarked on a campaign to oust the organisation's first Director-General, José Bustani. The State Department circulated a lengthy "fact sheet" detailing what it claimed were examples of his confrontational and abrasive conduct and poor administrative and financial management but according to Bustani the real reason was that he had been having discussions with Iraq about joining the Chemical Weapons Convention. This was something the US didn't want to happen because it would have weakened American claims about the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

The US brought matters to a head by threatening to cut off its financial support for the OPCW – which at the time accounted for 22% of the total budget – until Bustani stepped down. Intimidated by that, a special session of the states parties voted 48-7 to dismiss him. Bustani later took his case to a tribunal, alleging wrongful dismissal, and was awarded substantial compensation.

The current rift is more fundamental and less likely to heal quickly. The issue is what to do in a situation where one member – Syria – appears to be in breach of the Convention by not only retaining chemical weapons but actually using them. This would be less intractable were it not for the fact the Syria is actively defended by Russia. The earlier Bustani affair shows how disruptive it can be when a major power takes an uncompromising stand. After the Bustani affair consensus returned fairly quickly but the split over Syria is likely to persist in the OPCW for as long as there is disagreement among veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council.

A difficult choice

In these circumstances there is no ideal course of action for the OPCW to take: the two available options both come at some cost to the integrity of the Convention.

One option is to prioritise consensus by limiting any action to whatever steps can be unanimously agreed upon – which in practice would mean abandoning efforts to determine responsiblity for chemical attacks in Syria. In favour of that it can be argued that maintaining consensus will allow the OPCW to get on with other things, even if it is stymied over Syria. For example, there is still plenty of important work to be done in the fields of verification, monitoring and non-proliferation (especially among non-state actors).

The counter-argument is that non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention is far too serious to be brushed aside – that the OPCW exists to uphold the Convention and if there was ever a time to take a strong stand, this is it. According to that view, the issue is not just about Syria but about the signal the OPCW sends to other potential users of chemical weapons.

On that basis, the Conference of the States Parties decided in June 2018 to press ahead with attributing responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. Regardless of the merits of the decision, it comes at a price. The issue had to be put to a vote, thus breaking the consensus, and if the consensus is not restored quickly the losing side's commitment to the Convention and the OPCW can be expected to decline.

Even now, among many of the 193 member states, engagement on the Syrian chemical weapons issue is tenuous at best. Forty-one states – mainly small countries – stayed away from the June conference and of the 152 that did attend, 46 abstained or were absent for the vote. The more attribution is perceived as a quarrel between western powers and Russia rather an issue of principle, the more other states are likely to become disenchanted. This will be exacerbated if, as is probably enevitable, the Assad regime's supporters respond to continuing attribution efforts by stepping up their attempts to discredit the OPCW.

The Conference on Disarmament is a salutory example of what can go wrong when consensus breaks down. Established in 1979 as “the single multilateral negotiating forum for global disarmament questions", it had some early successes – among them negotiation of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in 1983, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996.

For the last 23 years, though, it has been virtually paralysed – not only failing to negotiate any more treaties but unable to agree on a programme of work.

This could easily become the fate of the OPCW too.

 

Further discussion

Crossing the red line: the use of chemical weapons in Syria and what should happen now
Yasmin Naqvi
International Review of the Red Cross, 2019

Identifying the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria: The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as part of the fight against impunity?
Mirko Sossai
Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2019

Chemical weapons attacks: the end of anonymity
Oliver Meier
SWP Comment, 2018

Stopping the use of chemical weapons in modern conflicts
Video of discussion at Chatham House, London, May 2018: Speakers: Ahmet Üzümcü, former Director-General, OPCW; Peter van Ham, Senior Research Fellow, Clingendael Institute; Caitriona McLeish, Senior Research Fellow, University of Sussex. Chair: Beyza Unal, Senior Research Fellow, Chatham House.

The Syrian chemical weapons disarmament process in context: narratives of coercion, consent, and everything in between
Karim Makdisi & Coralie Pison Hindawi
Third World Quarterly, 2017

OPCW Conference of the States Parties and CWC Review Conference. November 2018
A day-by-day account by Richard Guthrie

Playing politics with chemical weapons? The UK’s initiative on chemical weapons accountability
Oliver Meier, Ralf Trapp
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 20 June, 2018

Why the OPCW should attribute responsibility for chemical attacks
John R Walker
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 21 June, 2018

Countering the use of chemical weapons in Syria: Options for supporting international norms and institutions
Una Becker-Jakob
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, June, 2019

Responses to Violations of the Norm Against Chemical Weapons
Alicia Sanders-Zakre and Daryl Kimball
Arms Control Association, April 2019

Reassessing CBRN Threats in a Changing Global Environment
Fei Su and Ian Anthony (eds)
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, June, 2019