U.S. and Russia Pave Way to Blaming Assad for Chlorine Attacks

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The U.N. Security Council is poised to adopt a resolution Friday morning that will establish an international investigation unit to identify individuals responsible for carrying out dozens of chemical weapons attacks in Syria in the hope of one day holding them accountable for their crimes, according to Security Council diplomats.

The move comes after the United States and its European allies spent months working to persuade Russia to soften its long-standing diplomatic support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. The deal — which was finalized Wednesday night by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — provides the most promising opportunity yet for the U.N. to formally accuse the Syrian government of using chlorine bombs in heavily populated areas.

The draft resolution, obtained by Foreign Policy, calls on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, working in coordination with Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to submit within 20 days recommendations for the establishment of a new “joint investigative mechanism” that would be administered by the U.N. and the global chemical weapons watchdog.

The unit will be charged with identifying “to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical.”

A Security Council diplomat said the measure was “the first time we have a U.N. resolution that creates a mandate to attribute responsibility for anything in the Syrian conflict.”

“For us, it’s an important step. It reveals an evolution of the position of Russia, which up until now has been protecting the Syrian regime from any finger-pointing or blame,” the diplomat said.

Still, the draft resolution, which the 15-member Security Council will vote on Friday, provides no specific plans for prosecuting the members of Assad’s government or anti-government extremists who may be responsible for using chemical weapons. Establishing a court to try the accused would require a new resolution by the Security Council, and it’s far from clear that Moscow would be willing to back it.

Western officials and independent chemical weapons experts have long contended that the Assad government has been routinely dropping chlorine-filled bombs on towns under rebel control throughout Syria. But U.S. efforts to attribute the attacks to Damascus have run into opposition from Moscow, which claims that Syrian insurgents are also using toxic agents. Syria has denied using chemical weapons during a brutal civil war that has left more than 200,000 people dead over the past four and a half years.

The deal marks the most visible diplomatic breakthrough on Syria since Washington and Moscow reached an agreement last September on a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons program. The deal averted U.S. and French airstrikes against Assad in retaliation for a lethal August 2013 chemical weapons attack that killed large numbers of civilians in the town of Ghouta. The vast majority of the Syrian chemical weapons program has since been eliminated.

That deal did not halt the use of toxic agents inside Syria, in part because of the continued use of chlorine bombs. In September 2014, a fact-finding mission established by the OPCW to examine the alleged use of the armaments concluded that there was “compelling confirmation” that a toxic chemical had been used “systematically and repeatedly” as a weapon in northern Syria. But the fact-finding mission didn’t have the authority to name the party that perpetrated the chlorine attacks.

Under the terms of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, chlorine — a common industrial cleanser — is not considered a prohibited chemical agent. But its use as a weapon is banned.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Kerry said he believed he had reached an agreement that “will create a process of accountability” for the use of chlorine or other chemical weapons.

“What we are trying to do is to get beyond the mere finding of the fact that it may have been used and actually find out who used it and designate accountability for its use,” Kerry said, adding that the resolution would lead to “the creation of a mechanism which will actually enable us to do that.”

The biggest hurdle in the negotiations between the United States and Russia had centered on who would decide on whether to name those responsible for using chemical weapons. Moscow favored keeping decision-making power in the hands of the OPCW, which has a tradition of maintaining relatively cordial relationships with governments that possess chemical weapons. The United States and its European allies, by contrast, preferred creating a more independent body that would answer to the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to threaten sanctions to enforce its demands.

In the end, the resolution struck a compromise. Under the terms of the resolution, an OPCW fact-finding mission that has been monitoring chemical weapons use in Syria will be required to conclude that chemical weapons have been used in a specific place in order for the newly created joint investigation unit to identify any perpetrators.

The unit would have considerable scope to travel to Syria, security permitting, and to pursue its own lines of inquiry. It will also have the authority to review information collected by the OPCW, including victims’ medical records, eyewitness interview recordings, and other key documents.

For instance, the resolution would require both sides in the civil war to provide “full access to all locations, individuals and materials” in Syria. The resolution would also authorize the joint unit to examine “additional information and evidence that was not obtained or prepared” by the OPCW’s fact-finding mission. That means the new joint unit could act on intelligence it receives from foreign intelligence services, including the United States and other key players in the region.

The resolution includes no specific threat to punish Syria or other anti-government Syrian forces if they refuse to cooperate with the investigation. But it includes a passage noting that it may be prepared to impose unspecified “measures” under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter — a provision that is traditionally invoked to impose sanctions or other penalties on those who fail to comply with the Security Council’s demands.

Photo credit: J.M. LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. and Russia Pave Way to Blaming Assad for Chlorine Attacks | Foreign Policy
 
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