Weapons Inspectors Find Evidence Syria Has Chemical Program

  • Samples said to show ‘indicators’ of four weapons agents
  • U.S. says Syria has waged ‘calculated campaign’ of defiance

A pro-regime fighter flashes the sign of victory on Aug. 21, 2016, as he drives a tank in the southern district of Ghweiran in the Syrian northeastern city of Hasakeh, where Kurdish forces were advancing.

Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Inspectors working in Syria have detected the presence of previously undeclared chemical warfare agents, suggesting President Bashar al-Assad hasn’t given up his capabilities to wield such weapons and casting a shadow over an achievement claimed by the Obama administration.

QuickTake Chemical Weapons

Samples collected by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at multiple sites in Syria revealed chemical agents that Syria never declared after it agreed in 2013 to turn over all its stockpiles for destruction and join the Chemical Weapons Convention, according to a two-page summary of a confidential OPCW report that was given to the United Nations Security Council.

“The Secretariat considers that many of the explanations provided by the Syrian Arab Republic are not scientifically or technically plausible,” OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said in the report. “At present, Syria has not yet adequately explained the presence of indicators of four chemical warfare agents.”

The report’s findings add to concerns that Syria lied about the size and extent of its chemical weapons program after the 2013 agreement. That would pose a liability for President Barack Obama, who touted the deal, worked out with Russia’s help, as justification for his decision to back away from military action to enforce a “red line” he proclaimed after Assad used chemical weapons in his country’s civil war.

For a QuickTake explaining efforts to ban chemical weapons, click here.

In January of this year, the OPCW announced that it had verified the destruction of all the chemical stockpiles that Syria had declared as part of the U.S.-Russia deal. The new report from the group, which was founded in 1997 to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, raises questions about the completeness of that declaration.

“We’ve been pleased that the Assad regime’s declared weapons stockpile has
been rounded up and destroyed," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday. However, the situation in Syria “has been murky for quite some time,” he said.

The report is the result of work done by the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team, which was sent to Syria to verify its submissions as part of its accession to the convention and its claim that it abandoned its stockpiles. The new information “does not resolve outstanding issues,” according to the report, which said questions about Syria’s chemical weapons have “increased steadily over time.” The findings were reported earlier by Foreign Policy magazine.

The report describes a pattern of incomplete or contradictory accounts and a lack of access to high-level officials. As a result, it said, the OPCW team “cannot fully verify” that Syria is meeting its commitments under the chemical weapons convention.

Syria’s Refusal

While the report’s contents hadn’t previously been announced, officials from the U.S. and other countries who received it have discussed parts of it publicly. In a statement to an OPCW meeting on July 12, Kenneth Ward, the U.S. ambassador to the organization, said the report indicated “Syria has never truly accepted the obligations or the ideals of the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

“The only constant in this process has been Syria’s refusal to be open and transparent about the full extent of its chemical weapons program,” Ward said. “Syria has engaged in a calculated campaign of intransigence and obfuscation, of deception, and of defiance.”

Syria has faced repeated accusations that it used chemical weapons in violation of the treaty.

Chlorine Gas

An OPCW team also has produced a report on its investigation into Syria’s alleged use of chlorine against its own people. While chlorine is a common chemical that isn’t banned, its use as a weapon is prohibited under the convention.

Citing findings from that report, Ned Price, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, said Wednesday in a statement, “It is now impossible to deny that the Syrian regime has repeatedly used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people.”

“The United States will work with our international partners to seek accountability through appropriate diplomatic mechanisms, including through the United Nations Security Council and the OPCW,” he said. “We urge all UN member states and parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, including Russia and Iran, to participate in this effort.”

He said the OPCW also confirmed that Islamic State used mustard gas against civilians in Syria, underscoring the priority of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the terrorist group on targeting its “chemical weapons capabilities.”

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