The Bashar Assad regime and its main backer Russia faced renewed pressure over allegations of chemical weapons use as member countries of the global toxic arms watchdog met on Monday.
While Moscow was urged by Western nations to “transparently” reveal the circumstances of the Novichok nerve agent poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Damascus faced calls for sanctions at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) after investigators accused the Syrian regime of sarin attacks in 2017.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed in the nine years of brutal civil war that have riddled Syria. Yet, these attacks were not carried out using conventional weapons alone, with the Assad regime repeatedly using chemical weapons. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons in Syria at least 216 times over the last nine years. The regime conducted its first major chemical attack on Aug. 21, 2013, in the eastern Ghouta region of Damascus. The onslaught, which killed over 1,400 civilians, raised international concern at the time.
Russia and the Syrian regime have repeatedly denied the accusations, alleging that Western powers have politicized The Hague-based OPCW.
The Syrian regime had failed to meet the 90-day deadline set in July to declare the weapons used in the 2017 attacks on the village of Ltamenah and to reveal its remaining stocks, OPCW chief Fernando Arias said.
“The Syrian Arab Republic has not completed any of the measures,” Arias told the meeting as quoted by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies” remained in the regime's account of its progress on its 2013 agreement to give up all chemical weapons following a suspected sarin attack that killed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he said.
In April, the global chemical weapons watchdog issued a report blaming the Syrian regime for a series of chemical attacks using sarin and chlorine in late March 2017 on the central town of Ltamenah.
The report marked the first time the Investigation and Identification Team, set up in 2018 by the OPCW, has apportioned blame for an attack in Syria.
France proposed Monday that the OPCW should “suspend the rights and privileges” of the Syrian regime for failing to meet the deadline, French ambassador Luis Vassy said, adding that the proposal was backed by 43 states.
These would include the regime's voting rights in the OPCW, depriving it of a voice at a body where it has been deflecting allegations of toxic arms use for years.
Russia meanwhile came under pressure over the poisoning of Navalny in August. Navalny himself and Western governments have blamed the attack on the Kremlin.
In a joint statement, 55 countries including the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and many European states said they “condemn in the strongest possible terms” the attack on Navalny.
They urged Russia “to assist … by disclosing in a swift and transparent manner the circumstances of this chemical weapons attack” on Russian territory.
Russia hit back, saying the OPCW's “politicization” when dealing with Moscow and Damascus had become a “cancerous tumor.”
On Syria, it criticized the 2018 decision to grant the OPCW new investigative powers allowing it to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks, as it did for the 2017 sarin attacks in its report in April.
Previously the watchdog could only confirm whether or not chemical weapons were used, but not say by whom.
Russia accused Western powers of “trying to steamroll within the OPCW the decision on depriving Syria of its rights and privileges” and said the move would turn the body into a “kangaroo court.”
The OPCW has 193 member states and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its work in destroying the world's stocks of chemical weapons.