Diplomats disagree over Syria chemical sanctions
Michael Astor, AP, Aug 30 2016
UN – The UNSC failed to agree Tuesday on whether Syria merited sanctions over the use of chemical weapons, with Russia questioning the evidence from an independent commission that found government forces were behind at least two such attacks. It met to discuss the findings of an international team of inspectors that determined that both the Syrian government and IDaesh were responsible for chemical attacks carried out in 2014 and 2015. But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said it was too early to consider implementing a Sep 2013 UNSCR authorizing sanctions that can be militarily enforced for any use of chemical weapons in Syria. Churkin said following the closed-door session:
Clearly there is a smoking gun. We know that chlorine most likely has been used, that was already the finding of the fact finding mission before, but there are no fingerprints on the gun. There is nobody to sanction in the report which has been issued. It contains no names, it contains no specifics. … If we are to be professional we need to question all the conclusions.
Churkin said, however, that he was pleased the report had confirmed the use of chemical weapons by Daesh. Heading into the meeting, Sam Power called the report “a landmark” and said she expected a UNSCR soon. She said:
It is the first official independent confirmation of what many of us … have presented substantial evidence of for a long time, and that is a pattern of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime. It is incumbent on the council to act swiftly to show … we were serious about there being meaningful accountability.
In Sep 2013, Syria accepted a Russian proposal to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. That averted a Pindo military strike in response to a sarin attack that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, for which Syria was held responsible. Russia has blocked UNSC action against the Assad government, but Moscow did support the establishment of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, charged with determining who was responsible for the attacks and paving the way for possible punishment. The inspectors investigated nine cases in seven towns and determined the Syrian government was responsible for two attacks involving chlorine gas and Daesh for one attack involving mustard gas. They said three more attacks pointed toward government involvement but weren’t conclusive, and described three others as inconclusive. Virginia Gamba, who headed the inspection team, defended their methodology but conceded:
It is difficult to prove the use of chlorine, which is commercially available and evaporates quickly. Because of our mandate, we only scratched the surface of CW use in Syria. We are acutely aware of the ongoing use of chemicals as weapons in (code for “by”? – RB) the Syrian Arab Republic. Between Dec 2015 and Aug 2016, we received more than 130 new allegations from UN member states of the use of CW or toxic chemicals as weapons in Syria. The alleged attacks involved sarin, mustard gas, VX nerve gas, chlorine and 61 other toxic chemicals.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari dismissed the report’s findings as biased, saying:
The conclusions contained in the report were totally based on statements made by witnesses presented by the terrorist armed groups. Therefore, these conclusions lack any physical evidence.
Ahead of the meeting, HRW called on the UNSC to urgently impose sanctions on the Syrian government and to refer the case to the ICC, but acknowledged that might be difficult in the UNSC where Russia holds a veto. Louis Charbonneau, UN director at HRW, said:
This has been a political minefield for five and a half years but we have something different, we have a UN-backed mechanism with a report. We have it in black and white that the Syrian Government and Daesh are responsible for using chemical weapons, it’s a crime and the UNSC has many tools it can use, so we expect them to use them all.