December 11, 2020 | Policy Brief

Forty-Plus Nations Call for Suspension of Syria From Chemical Weapons Monitoring Body

December 11, 2020 | Policy Brief

Forty-Plus Nations Call for Suspension of Syria From Chemical Weapons Monitoring Body

Forty-six countries have co-sponsored a French call to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges as a member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international chemical weapons watchdog. OPCW reports have confirmed Syria’s illicit use of chemical weapons, yet the French proposal would impose the first formal penalty on the Bashar al-Assad regime for its violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1997.

In April, an OPCW report found that Syrian regime pilots had dropped bombs containing chlorine and sarin gas on the village of Ltamenah in Hama province on three occasions in March 2017. The report concluded such attacks “only occur pursuant to orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces.”

After publishing its report, the OPCW gave Damascus 90 days, starting on July 9, to declare its remaining stockpile of chemical weapons. This requirement included identification of all facilities where the Assad regime “developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored” the weapons employed in the Ltamenah attack.

In October, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias announced that the Assad regime had failed to declare any facilities whatsoever or even respond to a letter from the director-general informing Damascus of its obligations. The French responded with their proposal to suspend Syria from the OPCW, a move backed by the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and others.

The OPCW Conference of the States Parties planned to discuss these matters from November 30 to December 4 during its annual session in The Hague. The French announced on November 30 that their proposal had 46 co-sponsors; however, the proposal did not come up for a vote, because COVID-19 forced a delay of much of the conference’s business to a meeting scheduled tentatively for April 2021.

Apparent Russian violations of the CWC are also a point of concern for the OPCW. A group of 56 member states called on Russia to disclose “in a swift and transparent manner” the circumstances of the August poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with Novichok, a nerve agent that only Moscow is known to possess. Director-General Arias noted, “[T]he poisoning of an individual through the use of a nerve agent is a use of a chemical weapon.”

Moscow has denied any involvement in the incident and called the OPCW inquiry a “disinformation campaign” designed to exert political and sanctions pressure. Russia likewise denies that Assad has used chemical weapons, and has promoted conspiracy theories alleging the OPCW manufactured evidence of CWC violations by Damascus.

So far, an ongoing campaign of Russian obstruction has caused some delays but proven unable to block OPCW actions. OPCW voting rules require a two-thirds majority to approve decisions, so single states or small minorities cannot block them. Voting is by open ballot, so member states cannot side with Russia but deny having done so.

With France, the United States should lead the effort to ensure suspension of Syria when the OPCW Conference of the States Parties next convenes, possibly in April. The OPCW cannot impose economic sanctions, but the United States, France, and like-minded parties should coordinate the efforts of individual countries to designate Syrian officials and foreign enablers who support Syria’s chemical weapons program. By leading at the OPCW, the incoming administration has an opportunity to show that multilateral institutions have an important role to play in ensuring accountability for the most grievous human rights violations.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Patrick Spangenberg is an intern. For more analysis from David, Patrick, and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Patrick on Twitter @adesnik and @PatSpangenberg. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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