The Cable

U.S. Diplomat: Syria Has ‘Continued to Use Chemical Weapons on Its Own People’

Damascus continues to deny that it is targeting civilians.

MUNSTER, GERMANY - MARCH 05:  Workers in protective clothing unload a dummy grenade during a press day at the GEKA facility on March 5, 2014 in Munster, Germany. GEKA is federally-funded and its sole function is the destruction of chemical weapons from military arsenals. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons last August and disposal, which is already underway on an American ship in the Mediterranean, is scheduled to be completed by June.  (Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)
MUNSTER, GERMANY - MARCH 05: Workers in protective clothing unload a dummy grenade during a press day at the GEKA facility on March 5, 2014 in Munster, Germany. GEKA is federally-funded and its sole function is the destruction of chemical weapons from military arsenals. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons last August and disposal, which is already underway on an American ship in the Mediterranean, is scheduled to be completed by June. (Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)

Diplomats attending a conference for an international watchdog group helping investigate reports of chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians came out swinging Monday, accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of continuing to use the lethal munitions against his own people despite having promised to eliminate his stocks of chemical weapons.

The allegations came during a pointed opening session of the annual meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, in The Hague.

Representatives from the European Union and the United States used the session to sharply criticize Damascus and give voice to growing concerns in the international community that the regime may still control sizable quantities of chemical armaments like sulfur mustard and sarin.

According to reports from the opening day of the conference, Washington’s representative to the monitoring group, Rafael Foley, said that “chemical weapons use is becoming routine in the Syrian civil war,” and the “one conclusion” to be drawn from reports out of Syria is “the Syrian regime has continued to use chemical weapons on its own people.”

European Union representative Jacek Bylica added that there are many “uncertainties regarding the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program, notably the gaps and contradictions contained in Syria’s declarations.” Continued allegations of chemical attacks by the regime over the last year, he said, make it “impossible to have confidence” that Syria has actually dismantled the long-running program.

His comments come amid an ongoing international investigation into a series of alleged strikes over the past year, including evidence of an attack on the Syrian village of Sarmin in March that killed three small children.

Separately, U.S. military officials have expressed some confidence that Islamic State fighters used mustard gas against Kurdish forces in August, which sickened dozens of Peshmerga fighters. In January, the militants also allegedly attacked Kurdish forces with chlorine gas, raising serious questions over where they were able to obtain the weapons. The Kurds have requested that Washington send gas masks for their troops, but only about 300 have arrived thus far.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the accusations didn’t sit well with Syria’s representative to the panel. In a sharply worded statement, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad declared that his government will “state categorically that [it has] never used chlorine or any other toxic chemicals during any incidents or any other operations in the Syrian Arab Republic since the beginning of the crisis and up to this very day.”

Concerns about the use of chemical weapons inside Syria began to surface in 2012 following reports that the regime was targeting civilians with a variety of the armaments. In August of that year, President Barack Obama warned that hard evidence of more attacks would constitute a “red line,” after which he would order military strikes. But after a flood of video and physical evidence emerged by August 2013 that Assad’s forces continued to use sarin gas on civilians, Obama instead struck a deal, brokered by Moscow, requiring Damascus to document and hand over all of its chemical weapons stocks for destruction in exchange for a reprieve from the potential strikes.

Obama’s stand down on military action came as U.S. forces were primed to go. Assets were in place, and “our finger was on the trigger,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a documentary crew earlier this year.

Overall, Syria has handed over 1,300 tons of chemical weapons materials, and OPCW says about 99 percent of that has been destroyed. But reports of chlorine gas attacks on civilians over the past year have led OPCW to team up with the United Nations to establish a task force in New York, according to OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu. Their report is due to be briefed to the U.N.’s Security Council in February.

Photo credit: Nigel Treblin/Getty Images

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