Tension in the United Nations over the use of chemical weapons in Syria

Russia and China boycotted the UN Security Council meeting on the investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime in 2017
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) headquarters in The Hague

PHOTO/AFP  -   Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) headquarters in The Hague

There were tense moments regarding Tuesday's last meeting of the United Nations Security Council when Russia called "unacceptable" the last set session dealing with the alleged use of chemical weapons by the armed forces of Bachar al-Asad in 2017 in the context of the Syrian civil war.  

The conclave was held via videoconference due to the current restrictions on the COVID-19 pandemic. A virtual meeting that was set up to discuss the official intervention with chemical weapons three years ago in the war that has been raging in the Middle East country since 2011.  

Both Moscow and Beijing boycotted this planned closed-door video conference of the UN Security Council on Tuesday, as they did not appear on the planned connections. "Russia and China had their windows open on the screen," said a Council delegate who witnessed the event. 

Russia demanded that the virtual conference to be open, as Vassily Nebenzia, Russia's UN ambassador, said. "Regrettably, our western partners and their allies insisted on holding this meeting behind closed doors in an informal setting, despite the slogans of openness and transparency of the Security Council", Nebenzia said. "Such an approach is unacceptable to us as it undermines the prerogatives of state parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention" he said.  

El presidente de Siria, Bachar al-Asad
PHOTO/SANA - The President of Syria, Bachar al-Asad

During the monthly meeting, Council members heard reports from the UN's top representative for disarmament affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, and both the Director-General and the coordinator of the research and verification team of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Fernando Arias and Santiago Oñate, respectively.  

During the dialogue, Izumi Nakamitsu and the OPCW representatives informed the UN Security Council about the cooperation between the OPCW and Syria on chemical weapons issues, particularly with regard to the practical activities and consultation sessions between the two sides that were suspended due to the impact of the coronavirus health crisis. 

The Council members also presented their views on the new report issued on April 8 by the OPCW research and verification team in the Arab nation. Each month, the Council organizes a discussion meeting on issues related to the political process, the humanitarian situation and chemical weapons issues in the Syrian conflict.  

Last month, the OPCW team published a report that, for the first time, directly pointed to the Government of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad as being responsible for three chemical-weapon attacks in 2017. The investigation came about because of the new functionality given to this entity at its creation, by a United Nations resolution in 2018, which gave it the power to attribute guilt for chemical weapons offensives. This investigation group was created as an alternative solution to the power of Russia, a strong ally of the Syrian regime, which, as a member of the UN Security Council, systematically blocked independent investigations into these attacks.

This report reached three conclusions: on 24 March 2017, a military plane belonging to the Syrian Air Force dropped a sarin-containing bomb in the south of Latamné, affecting 16 people; on 25 March, a Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped a device that, on falling, released chlorine in Latamné hospital, affecting at least 30 people. Finally, on 30 March, another Syrian plane dropped a sarin bomb in the same area of Latamné, affecting 60 people. 

Gráfico sobre los ataques con gas a Latamné en 2017 que fueron llevados a cabo por Siria, según la Organización para la Prohibición de las Armas Químicas
AFP/AFP - Graphic on the gas attacks on Latamné in 2017 that were carried out by Syria, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

"It was concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Latamné on 24 and 30 March 2017 and of the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon on 25 March were individuals belonging to  the Syrian Arab Air Force," Santiago Oñate himself said in a statement released last month. 

Meanwhile, Russia defended itself from these allegations by pointing out that its partner in Damascus stopped its chemical weapons program, destroyed its arsenal of such weapons and stopped producing them. Along these lines, the Syrian executive denied responsibility for the attacks three years ago.  

Tuesday's meeting had been scheduled behind closed doors to allow Council members and Syria to "frankly exchange their views and ask questions of those reporting," the British representation to the UN said, according to AFP news agency. 

Vehículo militar ligero multiuso ruso en la cuidad de Qamishli, al noreste de Siria
PHOTO/AFP - Russian light military vehicle in the city of Qamishli, north-eastern Syria

"A refusal to attend the meeting and engage with the OPCW on the substance of its findings is disappointing and indicative of the preference of some council members to undermine the prohibition on chemical weapons use by attacking the people and institutions charged with protecting it," the statement said.

In this regard, there was wide support for the full implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, as well as for the functions of the OPCW, which are carried out in accordance with this convention. 

All of this is taking place in the context of a war in Syria that continues to be fought between Al-Asad's forces, supported by Vladimir Putin's Russia, and the insurgents entrenched in the last stronghold of Idlib province, which is seen by the Syrian Government as a haven for jihadist terrorists to be eliminated in order to pacify the country. Idlib is Syria's last opposition stronghold and part of the province is controlled by the Levantine Liberation Agency, a factional grouping created around the former Syrian branch of the Al-Qaida terrorist group. 

Vladimir Putin, presidente de Rusia
PHOTO/KREMLIN - Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

This is a conflict in which Turkey is also involved after having entered the northern area of Syrian territory to occupy checkpoints and surveillance posts in a security zone agreed with the United States and to harass the Kurdish ethnic group, which it accuses of terrorist attacks in the south of Ottoman territory. 

Turkey and Russia sealed a pact in March to carry out joint patrols in Idlib, which continue today despite Ankara's reduced military presence in Syria due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But tensions continue as Russia is an ally of Syria and defends interests very different from those sponsored by the Turkish nation led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is noted for alleged links to jihadi forces. 

The latest ceasefire in and around the Idlib region halted the latest government offensive that began in late April 2019 and has caused more than 1,500 deaths and nearly a million displaced people, according to U.N. figures.