U.S. Pushing for International Action to Destroy Syria’s Chlorine Stocks, Barrel Bombs

U.S. Pushing for International Action to Destroy Syria’s Chlorine Stocks, Barrel Bombs

The Obama administration is mounting a new push to contain Syria’s use of chemical weapons, asserting this week for the first time before an international panel that Damascus is obliged to destroy its legal stocks of chlorine and other industrial toxic chemicals. But Washington faces stiff opposition from Russia, which has challenged previous U.N. findings suggesting the Syrian Air Force bombed at least two Syrian towns with chlorine bombs in 2014 and 2015.

The United States this week circulated a draft resolution before the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, that would require Syria to declare the country’s stockpile of chlorine, a common industrial cleaner that has been converted into a toxic weapon in Syria. It would also require Damascus to declare those stocks, and any other toxic industrial chemicals, within 30 days. Furthermore, it would require Syria to declare all munitions, including barrel bombs, capable of delivering a chlorine payload within the same period.

Though the council generally works by consensus, diplomats say that the United States and its European allies, facing Russian opposition to the U.S. draft, are considering taking the unusual step of putting the matter to a vote. It would require support from 28 countries on the OPCW’s executive council, or two-thirds of its 41 member states, to pass. No final decision has been made on when, or whether, to call for a final vote.

Diplomats say the United States can easily count on the support of the executive council’s nine other Western members, as well as close allies like Japan and several Latin American countries. But they are probably going to have to water down the language to gather sufficient support from Asian and African governments, which may be disinclined to support the most onerous punitive measures.

On Friday, the executive council suspended action on the measure, giving the United States and other supporters an opportunity to lobby other governments to back it.

The U.S. push to curtail the remnants of Syria’s chemical weapons program comes three years after one of the Obama administration’s few bright spots in the Syrian mess. In 2013, the United States and Russia brokered a deal for the destruction of Syria’s stockpile of banned chemical weapons, including sarin, VX, and mustard gas. But international inspectors later discovered evidence of undeclared warfare agents at sites Syria claimed were not part of their chemical warfare program, fueling suspicions that the regime may have stashed additional lethal agents and the shells to use them. They have also confirmed that Syria employed chlorine against opposition-held towns in 2014 and 2015.

The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the European Union have backed the U.S. initiative, saying the use of chemical weapons by a member of the convention is unprecedented and must be answered with a strong response.

“For the first time in the history of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” one European diplomat said, “it has been confirmed that one of the member states has actually used chemical weapons.”

The confidential U.S. draft, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, “condemns in the strongest possible terms” the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and the Islamic State.

If approved, the text would grant international inspectors greater access to facilities suspected of concealing chemical weapons activities, including air bases and barrel bomb storage facilities. It would also suspend Syria’s voting rights at the OPCW, bar Syrian officials from senior posts at the chemical weapons agency, and prohibit Syrian nationals from employment at its headquarters in The Hague. Syria would effectively be reduced to the status of an observer state.

According to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria and other signatories are under no obligation to declare the presence of common industrial chemicals, including chlorine, as part of a declared chemical weapons program. But they are barred from weaponizing chlorine for use on the battlefield.

A joint U.N.-OPCW panel recently concluded that Syrian Air Force helicopters dropped chlorine bombs on the towns of Talmenes, on April 21, 2014, and Sarmin, on March 16, 2015. In a statement addressed to the executive council, U.S. OPCW Ambassador Kenneth Ward said Syria’s confirmed use of chlorine bombs undermined its right to possess it.

“Having been found to have used chlorine as a chemical weapon, Syria is now required under [the Chemical Weapons] Convention to declare and destroy all chlorine stocks and any other stocks of chemical weapons,” Ward said. “Syria must also declare and destroy all associated munitions such as … barrel bombs as well as the equipment and facilities used to produce these chemical weapons.”

Syria’s apparent skirting of its commitment to destroy all its chemical weapons — muddled by a maddening lack of documentation and transparency — has alarmed the international agency as well as big Western powers.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in his opening statement to the executive council on Tuesday that there are “gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies” in Syria’s claims to have destroyed its entire chemical weapons program.

“I continue to underscore the need for the provision of original documentation regarding the Syrian chemical weapons program, access to officials with overarching knowledge about the program, and scientifically plausible explanations on outstanding issues,” Uzumcu said.

The blatant challenge to the 20-year-old international convention banning chemical weapons makes a strong response by the international community a must, diplomats said.

“Syria’s dishonesty,” said Geoffrey Adams, Britain’s ambassador to the Netherlands and the OPCW, has led “us to believe that Syria has not only sought to preserve some of its chemical weapons capabilities, but also to develop new delivery systems in order to use chlorine as a chemical weapon.” He added, “If there is not a strong reaction, then the credibility and trustworthiness of the convention would be undermined.”

“We’ve long said that those responsible for using chemical weapons must be held to account,” Adams said. “Unless we act on those words, we risk normalizing the use of chemical weapons.”

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images