Tehran is using back-channel diplomacy to try to shield Bashar al-Assad from American attempts to punish him for gassing his own people with chlorine.
Tehran has spent decades urging the world to bar the use of chemical weapons, citing the thousands it lost when Saddam Hussein gassed Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War. When it comes to Syria, however, Tehran is doing all it can to protect Bashar al-Assad from Western attempts to punish him for using the deadly weapons against his own people.
The latest sign of Tehran’s willingness to shield an ally came Tuesday, when Iran tried to block a move by the United States and Russia to present a mildly worded statement to the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCM) that would have merely expressed “serious concern” about the likely use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria. The measure would also have provided the chemical watchdog’s chief with a green light to report to the U.N. Security Council on his agency’s investigation into the use of chlorine on the Syrian battlefield — something he has so far refused to do.
Syria and its allies have long sought to prevent the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions and authorize the use of military action against a U.N. member state, from meddling in its internal affairs. On Friday, and again on Wednesday, Tehran’s delegation at the OPCW headquarters in The Hague objected to the U.S. and Russian statement, which had the support of the OPCW’s executive council’s other 39 members.
Normally, that would have been enough to kill off the measure at the OPCW, which has traditionally tried to make all of its decisions unanimously, giving a single state an effective veto. But in an unprecedented move, the United States forced the OPCW’s executive council to publicly vote on the statement, thereby isolating Tehran. The vote, which followed intensive diplomatic outreach by the United States and other key partners, effectively pulled the rug out from underneath the Iranian delegation, making it clear that Tehran would not be able to protect Syria at The Hague.
Still, Tehran’s gambit underscored Iran’s role as Syria’s most important political benefactor and military backer, surpassing Moscow as Assad’s go-to government for international cover. It also highlighted the struggles the United States is facing in harnessing an international diplomatic coalition to penalize Assad for what Washington believes is his ongoing use of chemical weapons.
The debate is unfolding at a time when the OPCW has declared success in abolishing most of Syria’s chemical weapons program. In a statement this week, the watchdog said the international community had destroyed 98 percent of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal, including stores of sulfur mustard gas and methylphosphonyl difluoride — a key precursor for the nerve agent sarin — which were destroyed aboard an American naval vessel. Late last month, Syria destroyed an underground structure that had previously housed a chemical weapons facility, the first of 12 scheduled for destruction. While questions remain about whether Syria may have stashed some chemical weapons in secret hiding places, diplomats and arms control specialists say much of Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons has been eliminated.
Despite such efforts, Assad has still found ways of using chemicals to kill his own people. His newest weapon of choice is chlorine, a common industrial chemical best known as a swimming pool and clothing cleaner. Unlike mustard gas and sarin, chlorine is not subject to any international prohibitions, though its use as a chemical weapon is banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. Chlorine is not listed in the convention’s list of banned items.
Last April, Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the OPCW, announced plans to set up a fact-finding mission to investigate multiple reports that chemical weapons had been used in rebel-controlled areas of Hama, Idlib, and Rif Damascus. The OPCW investigators came under armed attack during their sole visit to the region last May, making it essentially impossible for them to collect evidence of chlorine use from the sites.
Still, the OPCW said that interviews conducted outside of Syria with dozens of eyewitnesses, emergency workers, doctors, and nurses provided extensive evidence of chlorine’s use on the battlefield, according to one of several reports produced by the team. In its third report, issued in December, the mission concluded that it had “a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used as a weapon.”
The OPCW, which has no mandate to assign responsibility for chemical weapons attacks, has never blamed either side for using chlorine. But U.S. and other officials say that the evidence amassed by international inspectors — particularly the fact that the poisonous gas was delivered by helicopters, which are used exclusively by the Syrian government — points the finger squarely at Assad.
For months, the United States worked to persuade Uzumcu to formally present the OPCW mission’s findings to the U.N. Security Council, the only world body with the authority to punish a country for using chemical weapons.
He demurred, citing a lack of a mandate and the OPCW’s tradition of maintaining complete confidentiality over its work, according to diplomatic sources. The United States also asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who receives the reports from the OPCW, to forward them to the Security Council. But United States later withdrew the request, according to a diplomatic source.
On Dec. 30, the United States, joined by seven other Security Council members, bypassed Uzumcu and Ban and formally presented three reports by the OPCW fact-finding mission to the council with a request that they be made public. Russia, which has largely tried to shield Syria from threats from the Security Council, protested the move in a closed-door meeting of the Security Council early last month.
But in recent weeks, the United States and Russia quietly reached agreement on a proposal that would make it easier for the OPCW’s leader to forward any future reports on the use of chlorine to the council. That wouldn’t impact the three reports that have already been completed, but it would mean that the world would have a way of calling out Assad if he used the weapon again down the road.
The agreement marked a rare show of unity by the United States and Russia over Syria. Diplomats tracking the issue said it remains unclear whether Russia backed the move in order to increase pressure on Syria to rein in its use of chlorine on the battlefield or has merely been engaging in an exercise in damage control.
Having failed to block the reports’ distribution to the 15-nation council, Moscow may be supporting the statement because it would leave it to Uzumcu, not member states, to decide whether to share his agency’s findings with the council down the road. Even if the watchdog turned over convincing circumstantial evidence suggesting that Assad was using chemical weapons, though, few Security Council members believe that Moscow would be prepared to apply sanctions on Syria.
For its part, Washington believes the joint U.S.-Russian initiative condemning the use of chlorine and making it easier for the OPCW to report on future chemical weapons attacks sends a strong signal to Assad.
“The Executive Council’s adoption of this decision reflects the recognition of the imperative that the OPCW respond to this fundamental threat to the international norm against the use of chemical weapons enshrined in the Chemical Weapons Convention,” a State Department official said in an email to Foreign Policy. “The OPCW fact-finding mission was not mandated to attribute responsibility regarding the chlorine use, but to establish the facts on their use, and the reports concluded that chlorine was used as a weapon, systematically and repeatedly, against three opposition villages in Syria between April and August of 2014.”
The Iranian delegation argued that it was premature to confront Syria over the use of chlorine, and therefore that it could not back the U.S.-Russian accord. Hamid Babaei, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, told FP by email that Tehran “believes that insistence on adopting a decision by the executive council merely serve the aims of specific countries and does not properly address the situation.”
Amid the diplomatic wrangling, Syrians have suffered — grotesquely and agonizingly — in chlorine attacks across the country.
Last April, residents of the town of Kafr Zita heard barrel bombs fall from the sky with a piercing whistle, mimicking the sound of a jet fighter in nose dive before slamming against the earth with a muffled thud and releasing a yellow and green gas cloud that rose above the town’s minarets, according to the OPCW fact-finding mission. It was the first of 17 suspected chlorine attacks that terrorized the villagers over a period of several months.
Within seconds, pigeons, and chickens died in courtyards; goats, sheep, and calves succumbed minutes later, while full-grown cows survived for up to 10 hours. Leaves and plants withered and wilted. A child standing next to the point of impact was spared the horrific shrapnel wounds of conventional bombs, but suffocated anyway. He wasn’t alone: The OPCW said that least 12 other people died in the chlorine attacks in the three villages, while as many as 480 others were injured.
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