Russia and West spar over vote to punish Syria over weapons

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Russia sparred with the United States and its allies Tuesday over a vote later this month that could strip Syria of voting rights in the international chemical weapons watchdog, with Moscow accusing the West of trying to “demonize Damascus” and the U.S. demanding a strong message to Syria’s government that using chemical weapons has consequences.

The exchanges came at the monthly U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria’s chemical weapons during which U.N. disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu said Damascus’ declaration of its chemical stockpiles and chemical weapons production sites nearly eight years ago remains incomplete, with 19 issues outstanding.

Among those is a chemical weapons production facility that Syria’s government declared as never used for such production but where experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found indications that nerve agent was produced or weaponized.

Nakamitsu also reported that site visits last September by OPCW experts found some “unexpected” chemicals in samples. She said Syria sent a note containing “further explanation” that is being analyzed.

In April 2020, OPCW investigators blamed three chemical attacks in 2017 on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. The OPCW Executive Council responded by demanding that Syria provide details. When it didn’t, France submitted a draft measure on behalf of 46 countries in November to suspend Syria’s “rights and privileges” in the global watchdog.

The matter will be considered at the meeting of the OPCW’s 193 member states that begins April 20 at its headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bassam Sabbagh, and Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, reiterated Damascus’ position that strongly opposes the use of chemical weapons and does not possess them.

Polyansky accused the OPCW of violating the principle of consensus and creating “an illegitimate investigation and identification team” that committed many errors in accusing Syria of using chemical weapons.

Polyansky said it was likely that “before the grand spectacle finale” later this month, the OPCW team “will serve another surprise” and report “on yet another pseudo-investigation with accusations against the Syrian authorities in its conclusions.”

The Russian envoy urged a “no” vote on suspending Syria. “If you deprive Syria of its right to participate in decisions made within the organization, what is the point of Damascus to continue working with them at all?” he asked.

Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, pressed by Russia after a deadly chemical weapons attack that the West blamed on Damascus. By August 2014, the Assad government declared that the destruction of its chemical weapons was completed, but its initial declaration of chemical stockpiles and production sites to the OPCW has remained in dispute.

Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward told the Security Council on Tuesday that the OPCW chief has said “the 19 outstanding issues relate to the fate of several hundred tons of chemical warfare agents and/or thousands of chemical munitions; indicators of three undeclared chemical warfare agents; and unknown, but potentially significant, quantities of chemical warfare agents.”

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that “the credibility of the Chemical Weapons Convention and this very council is at stake” in the upcoming vote on Syria.

She accused Assad of trying “to avoid accountability by obstructing independent investigations” and failing to cooperate with the OPCW. She said Russia is “spreading disinformation, attacking the integrity and professional work of the OPCW” and impeding efforts to hold Syria accountable.

Thomas-Greenfield noted the OPCW team assessing Syria’s declaration recently “discovered nerve agent weapons activity occurred at yet another facility the regime had declared as never having produced or handled chemical weapons.”

She said member state should vote to suspend Syria and “send a strong message to the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons is simply unacceptable and comes with grave consequences.”

France’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Nathalie Broadhurst, called for Syria’s suspension of voting rights “in order to reaffirm that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and that repeated violations of the convention cannot go unanswered.”

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