Probe of Chemical Arms Use in Syria Set

By Daniel Horner

The UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the past two months have put in place a “joint investigative mechanism” with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to determine responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The OPCW has had an ongoing fact-finding mission to probe allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria since the country acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in October 2013 and has concluded that attacks using chlorine occurred. (See ACT, October 2014.) Under its mandate, the OPCW mission is not responsible for determining who carried out the attacks.

But the OPCW mission reported that “witnesses invariably connected the devices to helicopters flying overhead.” Rebel forces in Syria, which have been fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since early 2011, are not known to have helicopters.

The new investigative unit is to work closely with the OPCW mission and use the mission’s findings as a starting point. According to Security Council Resolution 2235, adopted Aug. 7, the new investigative unit should “identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical” in areas of Syria that were the scene of incidents that the OPCW mission concluded “involved or likely involved the use of chemicals as weapons.”

The resolution calls for reports from the investigative team 90 days after it “commences its full operation” and from then on “as appropriate.” The resolution does not indicate what the end result of the investigation might be. In a Sept. 25 interview, a source familiar with the process of setting up the investigative unit said the mandate of the team was to provide information to the Security Council and that it will be up to the council to decide what to do with the information.

The resolution asked Ban to provide recommendations for the basic structure and arrangements for the investigative team, which he did on Aug. 27. The council was supposed to respond within five days, but took longer, in large part because of concerns raised by Russia, an ally of Syria.

In a letter to the Security Council on Sept. 9, Ban responded to some of the Russian objections. He said the trust fund being established to finance the investigative unit would use voluntary funds for “the material and technical” needs of the team. According to media reports, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, had suggested that reliance on voluntary contributions might skew the team’s conclusions toward the views of the donor countries.

In the Sept. 25 interview, the source said the effort was expected to require about $5 million to recruit and pay staff for the one year of the unit’s original mandate. That will come initially from unspent monies in a contingency fund of the secretary-general’s office, he said. Costs other than personnel costs, including the team’s potential “field activities,” are expected to cost about $7 million, he said.

In his Aug. 27 letter, Ban said the unit could have a “light footprint” in Syria. The source said the team would carry out on-the-ground probes in Syria only if it “see[s] something that needs to be investigated beyond” what the OPCW mission already has documented.

Ban’s Sept. 9 letter said the team “shall take due care in making its determinations regarding whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that access [to sites of reported incidents on Syrian territory] is justified.” Russia had expressed concern on that point, the source said.

In public comments, Russia argued that the team’s probes should extend to northern Iraq to encompass allegations of chemical weapons used there by the Islamic State group. Ban’s letter did not include any language on that point.

In a Sept. 10 letter, Churkin, in his capacity as Security Council president under the council’s monthly rotation system, replied to Ban, saying the council had authorized the recommendations.

The UN subsequently announced that Virginia Gamba of Argentina, a senior official in the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, will head the investigative unit. Her top deputies will be diplomats Adrian Neritani of Albania and Eberhard Schanze of Germany.