- Title: How Syria continued to gas its people as the world looked on
- Date: 17th August 2017
- Summary: KHAN SHEIKHOUN, IDLIB, SYRIA (FILE - APRIL 4, 2017) (REUTERS) MAN CARRYING CHILD IN HIS ARMS IN AFTERMATH OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS ATTACK
- Embargoed: 31st August 2017 13:03
- Keywords: Chemical weapons UN investigation Security Council OPCW sarin gas chlorine gas attack Aleppo Ghouta
- Location: EASTERN GHOUTA, DAMASCUS, KAFR ZITA, ALEPPO AND KHAN SHEIKHOUN, SYRIA AND NEW YORK, UNITED STATES AND THE UNITED NATIONS AND THE HAGUE, THE NETHERLANDS
- City: EASTERN GHOUTA, DAMASCUS, KAFR ZITA, ALEPPO AND KHAN SHEIKHOUN, SYRIA AND NEW YORK, UNITED STATES AND THE UNITED NATIONS AND THE HAGUE, THE NETHERLANDS
- Country: Syria
- Topics: Conflicts/War/Peace,Military Conflicts
- Reuters ID: LVA00D6UJLTTV
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: PLEASE NOTE: THIS EDIT CONTAINS MATERIAL WHICH WAS ORIGINALLY 4:3
PLEASE NOTE: THIS EDIT CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES
In the spring of 2015 a Syrian major general escorted a small team of chemical weapons inspectors to a warehouse outside the Syrian capital Damascus. The international experts wanted to examine the site, but were kept waiting outside in their car for around an hour, according to several people briefed on the visit.
When they were finally let into the building, it was empty. They found no trace of banned chemicals.
So why were the inspectors kept waiting? The Syrians said they were getting the necessary approval to let them in, but the inspectors had a different theory. They believed the Syrians were stalling while the place was cleaned out. It made no sense to the team that special approval was needed for them to enter an empty building.
The incident, which was not made public, is just one example of how Syrian authorities have hindered the work of inspectors and how the international community has failed to hold Syria to account, according to half a dozen interviews with officials, diplomats, and investigators involved in eliminating Syria's weapons of mass destruction.
A promise by Syria in 2013 to surrender its chemical weapons averted U.S. air strikes. Many diplomats and weapons inspectors now believe that promise was a ruse.
They suspect that President Bashar al-Assad's regime, while appearing to cooperate with international inspectors, secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability. They say Syria hampered inspectors, gave them incomplete or misleading information, and turned to using chlorine bombs when its supplies of other chemicals dwindled.
There have been dozens of chlorine attacks and at least one major sarin attack since 2013, causing more than 200 deaths and hundreds of injuries. International inspectors say there have been more than 100 reported incidents of chemical weapons being used in the past two years alone.
"It was very difficult for us to go in there and have an investigation and have them (the Syrian government) agree to all the parameters that we needed -- ie the security, freedom of movement, how we were going to go in, with what people we were going to go in, etc," Angela Kane, who was the United Nation's high representative for disarmament until June 2015, told Reuters. All of those had to be agreed to with the government. And that was not easy to negotiate that because the government had very clear ideas as to what they wanted.''
The extent of Syria's reluctance to abandon chemical weapons has not previously been made public for fear of damaging international inspectors' relationship with Assad's administration and its backer, Russia, which is giving military support to Assad. Now investigators and diplomatic sources have provided telling details to Reuters:
- Syria's declarations about the types and quantities of chemicals it possessed do not match evidence on the ground uncovered by inspectors. Its disclosures, for example, make no mention of sarin, yet there is strong evidence that sarin has been used in Syria, including this year. Other chemicals found by inspectors but not reported by Syria include traces of nerve agent VX, the poison ricin and a chemical called hexamine, which is used to stabilise sarin.
- Syria told inspectors in 2014-2015 that it had used 15 tonnes of nerve gas and 70 tonnes of sulphur mustard for research. Reuters has learned that inspectors believe those amounts are not "scientifically credible." Only a fraction would be needed for research, two sources involved in inspections in Syria said.
- At least 2,000 chemical bomb shells, which Syria said it had converted to conventional weapons and either used or destroyed, are unaccounted for, suggesting that they may still be in the hands of Syria's military.
- In Damascus, witnesses with knowledge of the chemical weapons programme were instructed by Syrian military officials to alter their statements midway through interviews with inspectors, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
The head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international agency overseeing the removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, conceded serious questions remain about the completeness and accuracy of Syria's disclosures.
"They declared two thousand aerial bombs, which were unfilled, but claimed, they claimed that they were repurposed for conventional purposes. And, we couldn't see any sample of it and this question continues to be addressed with them and they claimed that they were used for conventional purposes, we couldn't have the evidence of it yet," OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu, a Turkish diplomat, told Reuters.
"So I am not able to say that there was a violation, there was a clandestine program which continued after Syria joined the Convention, but there are certainly some gaps, inconsistencies, discrepancies, as we put forward in our report to the executive council," he added.
But he rejected criticism of his leadership by Kane and some other diplomats. Kane told Reuters that Uzumcu should have turned up the pressure on Syria over the gaps in its reporting and done more to support his inspectors. Uzumcu countered that it was not his job "to ensure the full compliance" of treaties on chemical weapons, saying that the OPCW was mandated to confirm use of chemical weapons but not to assign blame.
On Aug. 21, 2013, hundreds of people died in a sarin gas attack in Ghouta, a district on the outskirts of Damascus. The colourless, odourless nerve agent causes people to suffocate within minutes if inhaled even in small amounts. Assad's forces were blamed by Western governments. He has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and blames insurgents for the attack.
In the wake of the atrocity, the United States and Russia brokered a deal under which Assad's government agreed to eradicate its chemical weapons programme. As part of the deal, Syria joined the OPCW, based in the Hague, Netherlands, promising to open its borders to inspectors and disclose its entire programme - after previously denying it had any chemical weapons.
Syria declared it had 1,300 tonnes of chemical weapons or industrial chemical stocks, precisely the amount that outside experts had estimated. In an OPCW-led operation, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, that stockpile was shipped overseas for destruction with the help of 30 countries, notably the United States.
But there were two significant problems. First, inspections did not go smoothly. Days after the Ghouta sarin attack, OPCW inspectors heading for the area came under sniper fire. They made it through to Ghouta eventually and were given just two hours by Syrian authorities to interview witnesses and take samples. The team confirmed that sarin had been used.
The OPCW team has carried out 18 site visits since 2013, but has now effectively given up because Syria has failed to provide sufficient or accurate information, these sources said.
The second problem was a switch of tactics by Assad's forces. While the United Nations and OPCW focused on ridding Syria of the stockpile it admitted having, Assad's forces began using new, crude chlorine bombs instead, according to two inspectors. As many as 100 chlorine barrel bombs have been dropped from helicopters since 2014, they said. Syria has denied using chlorine.
Although less poisonous than nerve gas and widely available, chlorine's use as a weapon is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed when it joined the OPCW, an intergovernmental agency that works with the United Nations to implement the convention. If inhaled, chlorine gas turns into hydrochloric acid in the lungs and can kill by drowning victims in body fluids.
A source involved in monitoring Syria's chemical weapons for the OPCW said Damascus began using chlorine as "a weapon of terror" to gain a battlefield advantage when one of its bases in Kafr Zita was threatened with being overrun in 2014.
A senior official who has worked with United Nations and OPCW investigators said two helicopter squadrons dropped chlorine barrel bombs, drums filled with chlorine canisters, from two air bases. To produce such a quantity must have required technical staff and logistical support, suggesting the operation was overseen by senior commanders, the official said.
The introduction of a new type of chemical weapon came at an awkward time for the OPCW, said the source involved in studying Syria's chemical weapons for the weapons monitoring group. It was keen to remove Syria's declared stockpile and reluctant to start a probe into alleged government violations that could jeopardise Syrian cooperation. The goal of removing the stockpile, which Western governments feared could fall into the hands of Islamic State, took precedence over the chlorine attacks, the source said.
OPCW head Uzumcu denied there had been a reluctance to investigate reports of chlorine attacks, pointing out that in 2014 he set up a fact finding mission to look into them. This mission was not tasked with assigning blame, however. It concluded that the use of chlorine was systematic and widespread.
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