In tacit rebuke of Russia, Israel backs UN report on Syria chemical weapons use

In tacit rebuke of Russia, Israel backs UN report on Syria chemical weapons use

Foreign Ministry says watchdog findings 'unequivocally' prove Assad used poison gas, calls on international community to step up efforts against regime

A member of a UN chemical weapons investigation team takes samples from sand near Damascus, Syria, August 28, 2013. (AP/United Media Office of Arbeen)
A member of a UN chemical weapons investigation team takes samples from sand near Damascus, Syria, August 28, 2013. (AP/United Media Office of Arbeen)

Roundly rejecting Russian criticism of the task force, Israel on Sunday endorsed a UN watchdog report on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, saying it “unequivocally” proves Assad used poison gas and must therefore be punished by the international community.

Last month a report by a joint UN-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) panel said the Syrian air force on April 4 had dropped a bomb on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhun, releasing the deadly nerve agent that killed more than 80 people, including children.

The OPCW has a team called Fact Finding Mission, which investigates whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria. The JIM was set up by the Security Council to apportion blame for such attacks.

But Russia has dismissed the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report, saying the experts did not travel to Khan Sheikhun and worked with samples Moscow maintains may have been tampered with by Western intelligence.

Illustrative photo: this image, from a video posted on September 18, 2013, shows Syrians in protective suits and gas masks conducting a drill on how to treat casualties of a chemical weapons attack, in Aleppo, Syria (AP)

“The Joint Investigative Mechanism unequivocally establishes that the Assad regime is responsible for the deaths of dozens of people by using gas in the town of Khan Sheikhun,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in the Sunday statement. “The report also provides additional proofs of the continued ability of the Syrian regime to use deadly chemical weapons, and their willingness to.”

The Foreign Ministry therefore called on the international community “to investigate every instance of the use of chemical weapons and to bring those responsible to justice.”

The strongly worded statement comes days after Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime’s allies, proposed a resolution at the OPCW meeting last week which diplomats say effectively asks investigators to scrap the first probe into the Khan Sheikhun incident and launch a new investigation.

The draft resolution “decides to renew the work by the FFM on the incident with the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun in order to ensure a full-scale, professional and high-quality investigation to identify sarin,” according to a copy seen by several media outlets.

The Foreign Ministry statement squares Israel firmly up against Russia in the growing international dispute that last week saw the United States and Britain accuse Moscow of  lying over Syria’s responsibility for the chemical attack.

The UN Security Council votes to extend investigations into who is responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria at the United Nations on October 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY)

In harshly worded statement, US representative to the OPCW Ken Ward said Russia was “continuing to deny the truth” regarding the attack in which sarin was used.

Ward accused Russia of “collaborating with the Assad regime in a deplorable attempt to discredit the (OPCW) Fact Finding Mission and the Joint Investigative Mechanism”.

“Regrettably, Russia has abetted Syria’s use of chemical weapons and disregarded the international responsibilities Syria undertook,” Ward said in a statement posted on the OPCW’s website.

Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin, in turn blamed the US envoy of “stirring up infighting”, creating division within the OPCW which in 2013 won the Noble Peace Prize for its work in Syria.

“For us there is no prospect for the time being of the Russian Federation and the United States of meeting half way,” Shulgin said. “We are navigating in parallel worlds.”

Also Sunday, Israel signaled it will not be bound by a reported ceasefire deal in southern Syria reached by the United States, Russia and Jordan, with ministers indicating Israel will continue to operate across the border when it deems it necessary.

Smokes billows from the southern Syrian Druze village of Hadar on November 3, 2017, as seen from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. (AFP/JALAA MAREY)

The agreement, announced in a US-Russian statement Saturday, affirms a call for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from southern Syria.

According to reports, the deal includes Iranian proxies fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, which would be required to leave the border area and eventually Syria.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not address the deal, he and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have long said Israel will not tolerate an Iranian presence along the Golan nor allow Iran to entrench itself military in Syria.

Also over the weekend, the Israel Defense Forces shot down a Syrian drone above the Golan Heights, as it approached the border with Israel.

Israeli security officials said the drone’s operators had deliberately attempted to fly the aircraft across the Israeli border from Syria, but the craft was shot down before it crossed into Israel.

AFP and AP contributed to this report.

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