UNITED NATIONS – Syria’s government is held responsible for a sarin gas attack in April that killed more than 80 people – but will Russia, an ally of Damascus, accept the report or take it apart line by line?
Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, gave a preview of criticism of the experts report before it was published, based on an earlier fact-finding mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which pointed to the government for the attack but did reached a definitive conclusion. The OPCW is involved in the latest report.
Lavrov said too many experts from the OPCW were prejudiced against Damascus, refused to go to the site of the disaster and accepted tests done in distant Britain and France of the incident, which revealed pictures of desperate children and adults gasping for breath.
At issue is a 33-page report from the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) that concluded it was “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun” in northern Iraq. The United States launched a cruise missile at the Shayrat airfield where the weapons originated, two days after the April 4 sarin attack.
The JIM panel said it did not go to Khan Shaykhun because of security reasons as the area is dominated by the Nusra Front rebels. It interviewed witnesses, obtained videos and photographs, received analysis from several forensic institutes, among many other sources. It also analyzed the aircraft and its delivery system.
The investigative panel was created in 2015 by the United Nations Security Council to determine who has been using chemical weapons in Syria. It is a joint venture of the United Nations and the OPCW, based in The Hague.
Its previous reports have found that Syrian forces had used chlorine bombs at least three times and that ISIS or Islamic State fighters had used sulfur mustard at least once. The latest report will have an impact on US-Russia relations in Syria.
Lavrov says experts are pro-Western
In answer to a question by this reporter, Lavrov on September 22 said the OPCW had two groups of experts: one used information from the opposition and the other included Friends of Syria, a group created by former President Barak Obama and composed of those eager to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The initial information, he said, came from the white helmets, backed by Britain. But he said the crater could not have been made by aviation shells. The United States, at first asked to go to the air base it bombed but then said “it was too late” even after the Syrian government agreed, Lavrov said.
The OPCW said it had probes analyzed in France and Britain. “If they had such probes, then London and Paris managed to go to the site,” Lavrov said. “This is not a normal approach” and broke the chain of custody.
Russia has also said that its photographs of the bomb site showed the crater was too small for munitions to have been dropped from the air. Assad at first said child actors were faking an illness from the toxic gas. The insurgents have no planes.
The JIM panel also determined that ISIS or Islamic State fighters had attacked civilians with sulfur mustard poison on September 16, 2016 in UM-Housh, Aleppo province. They interviewed journalists who were on the ground immediately after the attack, doctors and military commanders.
Nikki Haley: no one should protect the regime
Quick to react was Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who was traveling in Africa. She said, in a statement, that the report was the fourth instance of confirmed chemical weapons used by Syria “though the actual number is higher.”
“Time and again, we see independent confirmation of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime. And in spite of these independent reports, we still see some countries trying to protect the regime,” she said. “That must stop now."
British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft agreed: “We already knew the regime has used chlorine. Now we have evidence that they also used the deadly nerve agent sarin”
“When the Security Council tried to hold Syria to account, Russia vetoed. A robust international response is now essential,” Rycroft said. “I look to Russia to join that effort.”
Russia veto on renewing Syria panel
On Tuesday, Russia vetoed a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution that would have renewed for a year the mandate for the JIM. Its UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the final JIM report was due shortly so the vote on extension could wait. Instead western delegates tried to ”show up Russia.”
“It stinks,” in fact. ” Nebenzia said.
The US deputy ambassador, Michele Sidon, argued that approving the extension before the report made it less political.
Only Bolivia voted with Russia, which as a permanent member of the Security Council has veto rights. China and Kazakhstan abstained. The other 11 members voted in favor on renewing the mandate.
The JIM mandate expires on November 16 and Russia’s position is still unclear. Russia has vetoed eight resolutions that would have chastised the Syrian government.
The sarin attack, however, is different. It horrified the world with images of children dead or gagging on the ground.