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Syria faces sanctions from chemical weapons watchdog, rejects attack claims

Damascus accused of failing to answer key questions after watchdog probe found its air force bombed Lataminah village with sarin and chlorine in 2017

The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, Netherlands (photo credit: AP/Peter Dejong)
The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, Netherlands (photo credit: AP/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AFP) — The world’s chemical weapons watchdog will decide this week whether to impose unprecedented sanctions on Syria for its alleged use of toxic arms and failure to declare its arsenal.

Member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will weigh a French proposal to suspend Syria’s “rights and privileges” at the body, including its ability to vote.

Damascus is accused of failing to answer key questions after an OPCW probe last year found Syria attacked a rebel-held village with the nerve agent sarin and the toxic chemical chlorine in 2017.

“Syria’s refusal to faithfully deliver the requested information cannot and must not remain unanswered,” the European Union said in a joint statement to the United Nations last week.

Syrian women who live in Beirut, light candles during a vigil against the alleged chemical weapons attack on the suburbs of Damascus, in front the United Nations headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 21, 2013 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

“It is now up to the international community to take appropriate action.”

If approved by the meeting of the OPCW’s 193 member states at its headquarters in The Hague, it would be the first time the watchdog has used its maximum available punishment.

The three-day meeting opens on Tuesday and diplomatic sources told AFP that the vote is expected on Wednesday or Thursday.

Syria has rejected all the allegations and said the attacks were staged.

Damascus and its ally Moscow have accused Western powers of using the OPCW for a “politicized” campaign against them.

Syria ‘to be held accountable’

Screen capture from a satellite of an area near Masyaf, Hama province Syria where the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center reportedly maintains a chemical weapons facility. (Google maps)

Syria agreed in 2013 to join the OPCW and give up all chemical weapons, following a suspected sarin attack that killed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

But an OPCW investigation found in April last year that the Syrian air force was responsible for sarin and chlorine bombings on the village of Lataminah in 2017.

Damascus then failed to comply with a 90-day deadline by the OPCW’s governing body to declare the weapons used in the attacks and reveal its remaining stocks.

France in response submitted a motion backed by 46 countries calling for the regulator to freeze Syria’s rights at the watchdog.

Pressure mounted on Syria last week after a second investigation released by the OPCW found that it had also carried out a chlorine bomb attack on the rebel-held town of Saraqib in 2018.

World powers sparred at the United Nations last week over the issue.

Members of the UN Security Council vote after presentations for a resolution drafted by the United States for an independent investigation on the use of chemical weapons in Syria during a Security Council meeting, April 10, 2018, at UN headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

“I say this with gravity, it is time for the Syrian regime to be held accountable,” Nicolas de Riviere, the French ambassador to the UN, told the world body last week.

“I call on all states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention to support this draft decision.”

Unanswered questions

According to the United Nations, Damascus has for years not replied to a series of 19 questions about its weapons installations, which could have been used to stock or produce chemical weapons.

Syrian President Bashar Assad listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The UN has also accused the regime of President Bashar Assad of carrying out chemical attacks against its own citizens in the past.

Russia and Syria have however criticized the OPCW’s decision in 2018 to grant itself new powers to identify the perpetrators for attacks — as it did with the reports into the attacks in Lataminah and Saraqib.

Previously the watchdog could only confirm whether or not chemical weapons were used, but not say by whom.

Russia itself however also faces pressure at the OPCW over last year’s Novichok nerve agent poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

In this May 17, 2018, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

The OPCW has also been a backdrop for growing tensions between Russia and the West, with the Netherlands in 2018 expelling four alleged Russian spies whom it accused of trying to hack the watchdog’s computers.

The organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its work in destroying the world’s stocks of chemical weapons.

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