World, Middle East

Syria's Khan Sheikhun chemical attack report looms

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu tells Anadolu Agency report into deadly gas attack will go to UN next week

Syria's Khan Sheikhun chemical attack report looms

By Abdullah Asiran


A joint investigative mechanism set up by an international chemical weapons watchdog has told Anadolu Agency it will issue a report next week to the UN on an April 2017 attack in Syria's Khan Sheikhun region.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism established by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN will present their findings to the UN Security Council, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said.

Uzumcu -- a Turkish diplomat -- said the Bashar al-Assad regime (in the name of the Syrian government) declared its chemical weapon stocks to the OPCW in 2013 when a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Stating that nearly 1,300 tons of these weapons have been removed from Syria under OPCW scrutiny, Uzumcu said: "We began investigating whether there are other chemical substances that should be declared but not reported; this process is still going on."

Bashar al-Assad regime's chemical weapon attack on Aug. 21, 2013 in the eastern Ghouta region of Damascus claimed 1,400 civilian lives, and more than 10,000 more were injured, mostly women and children.

After this attack, the expectation for intervention in Syria emerged -- "the red line" previously announced by the United States.

Russia prevented intervention by tabling an offer that the regime destroy all chemical weapons. The parties agreed on Sept. 15, 2013, and the process of destroying the chemical weapons, which the OPCW became part of, was launched. The organization announced this process was completed on 19 August 2014.

However, since the OPCW's task was limited to the inventory reported by the Assad regime, there was a doubt that all the chemical weapons had been destroyed.

According to a Syrian Human Rights Network report dated August 2017, the Assad regime has conducted chemical weapons attacks at least 174 times since September 2013.

Uzumcu, speaking about the East Ghouta attack, said a mechanism based on the 1925 Geneva protocol called the UN Secretary-General Mechanism was initiated as Syria was not a party to the CWC at the time.

He said a 12-member team, including nine OPCW experts, confirmed in an on-site investigation that sarin gas was used in the attack.

"However, they have not reached a conclusion about who used this. It is standing in front of the international community as an issue that needs to be clarified.

“I hope this is done in the future and those who responsible for the attack are taken to justice and punished," Uzumcu said.

Khan Sheikhun massacre

Regarding the Khan Sheikhun massacre in which least 100 civilians killed on April 4 this year, Uzumcu said the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was investigating the case as an OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) had no directive to identify who deployed the gas after they confirmed the use of sarin.

"This mechanism will present the report to the UNSC at the end of October. [They] will also send us its copy. After that, it probably would be a matter of taking more steps. If they can come to a conclusion about who [used sarin], then the necessary steps must be taken," Uzumcu said.

In response to Russian and Assad regime claims the OPCW did not visit Khan Sheikhun, Uzumcu insisted this would not affect the validity of the FFM’s findings as the research was entirely scientific and that sarin gas was found in laboratory tests.

Uzumcu said they did not go to Khan Sheikhun because of the security situation but said samples sent by the Syrian regime from the area matched when tested against OPCW evidence.

Stating that they had made contact with neighboring countries, as the FFM could not be deployed directly in Syria, Uzumcu pointed out that Turkey also offered the necessary facilities.

In a statement made by the JIM on Oct. 5, it was reported that investigation revealed sarin gas was used in the north of Syria on March 30, five days before the Khan Sheikhun attack.

"We heard that sarin gas was used on March 30 in the city of Al-Lataminah, 25 kilometers [15 miles] away from Khan Sheikh, and the FFM is still investigating this," Uzumcu said, adding that initial findings confirmed this claim.

Uzumcu stated there is a claim that chlorine gas was used more than 60 times in Syria in the last year, and said the FFM will present a report while examining these claims.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in its report on Sept. 6 confirmed the Assad regime used sarin gas in Khan Sheikh. However, the report is non-binding in the UN.

For this reason, international public opinion is waiting for JIM report that will be presented the Security Council.

Assad regime imports

When asked if the Assad regime could use imported industrial or textile chemicals as a weapon, Uzumcu said:

"Some chemical substances are subject to double-use… their import and export need to be declared. Our organization needs to be notified. I think the international community is sensitive to these issues because of the situation in the region. Each country [part of the convention] has to make these notifications."

Stating that all countries which are part of the convention are obliged to report their chemical weapons and to destroy them under the control of OPCW, Uzumcu said:

"So far, eight countries have reported [their] chemical weapons. The declared weapons of seven countries, including Syria, were destroyed. Russia completed [its] chemical weapons annihilation work just two weeks ago. Work in the U.S. is continuing. The U.S. has destroyed 90 percent of its stocks, and 10 percent will be completed in the next 5-6 years."

He also said it was not known whether Israel, North Korea, Egypt and South Sudan, which are not part of the convention, have chemical weapons. Pyongyang has a chemical weapon stock of 3,000-5,000 tons according to open sources.

Uzumcu said they share South Korea's anxiety over the North's capability in chemical weapons. Although today's tensions over North Korea are more concentrated around nuclear and missile technologies, he said he hoped the regime would "become a party of the CWC as soon as possible".

Younger generations

Although Uzumcu is ending his duties in July 2018, he said it was a great honor to receive the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the OPCW.

Stating that the Nobel Committee rewarded the OPCW for the sake of its efforts in the field of chemical disarmament, Uzumcu emphasized the success of the organization was achieved not only by personal effort but also by the member states' meticulousness in fulfilling their responsibilities.

Uzumcu, now in his seventh year in the role, said they were able to accomplish many things but there was much more to do, stressing that there is the need for greater sensitivity and cooperation on chemical terrorism, which he described as a global threat.

"I want to share my eight-year experience here with the younger generations. I think I can teach at some universities, work in think-tanks," he said.

Reporting by Abdullah Asiran:Writing by Ilker Girit

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