Chemical weapons watchdog weighs Syria sanctions

Chemical weapons watchdog weighs Syria sanctions
World powers urged the global chemical weapons watchdog OPCW to hit Syria's brutal Assad regime with unprecedented sanctions
3 min read
Bashar al-Assad's regime has used chemical weapons against civilians [Getty]

World powers urged the global chemical weapons watchdog on Tuesday to hit Syria's brutal Assad regime with unprecedented sanctions for alleged toxic gas attacks and for failing to declare its arsenal.

Syria faces the loss of its "rights and privileges" at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) after a probe found it had carried out three attacks in 2017.

The regulator's 193 member states are expected to vote on Wednesday on a proposal by France, backed by 46 countries, that would include freezing Syria's voting rights at the Netherlands-based body.

Syria and its ally Russia dismissed the sanctions threat, accusing Western powers of using the Hague-based OPCW as a "propaganda tool" to undermine Damascus in its ten-year civil war.

"We cannot let this tragedy go on for another decade," French OPCW ambassador Luis Vassy told the watchdog.

"We find ourselves in an exceptional situation, which demands that we take action accordingly."

It would be the first time a country had faced such punishment in the history of the OPCW, which was founded nearly a quarter of a century ago to rid the world of chemical weapons. 

Sarin and chlorine 

The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad agreed in 2013 to join the OPCW and give up all chemical weapons, following a suspected sarin nerve gas attack that killed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

But an OPCW investigation found in April last year that the Syrian air force was responsible for three attacks on the village of Lataminah in 2017 using sarin and chlorine gas.

Damascus then failed to adhere to a 90-day deadline to declare the weapons used in the attacks, reveal its remaining stocks and comply with OPCW inspections.

France in response submitted the motion calling for Syria to be punished.

Pressure mounted on Damascus last week after a second OPCW investigation found a Syrian helicopter dropped a chlorine bomb on the rebel-held town of Saraqib in 2018.

OPCW Director General Fernando Arias said on Tuesday that Syria's responses to questions about its chemical weapons still "cannot be considered accurate and complete" despite years of inspections.

In the most recent example, the OPCW had opened a new inquiry after Damascus gave "insufficient" explanations for the discovery of chemicals in September 2020 at a site where it had denied making toxic arms.

The UN recently said Damascus has for years not replied to a series of 19 questions about its weapons installations.

'Hostile agenda'

Syria slammed the "pompous" French statement, likening the situation to the false allegations about weapons of mass destruction before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"We deny that we have ever used toxic gases," Syria's OPCW ambassador Rania Alrifaiy said.

"I call on you to vote no, to reject the hostile agenda against Syria," she said.

Russia also rejected the move to punish its ally.

"This is very serious. We've never had this kind of a case before where a state party was deprived of their privileges and rights," Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin said.

France however said countries should not be "duped" by claims that Syria would be frozen out of the OPCW, and that Syria would still be able to speak there even though it could not vote.

Moscow and Damascus allege the OPCW has become "politicised", especially since it gained new powers in 2018 to identify the perpetrators of attacks. Previously it could only say whether or not chemical arms had been used.

Russia meanwhile also faces pressure at the OPCW over last year's Novichok nerve agent poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

The OPCW has been a backdrop for growing tensions between Russia and the West, with the Netherlands in 2018 expelling four alleged Russian spies whom it accused of trying to hack the watchdog's computers.

The organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its work in destroying the world's stocks of chemical weapons.

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