A new report released by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) finds “reasonable grounds” exist to believe the Syrian Government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed 43 civilians in the suburban town of Douma in 2018, the organization’s senior official told the Security Council on Tuesday.
Fernando Arias, Director-General of the UN-backed OPCW, said the findings are laid out in the third report of an Investigation and Identification Team tasked with ascertaining the perpetrators of specific instances of chemical weapons use in Syria.
According to the report, he said, there is evidence that, on 7 April 2018, at least one Syrian air force helicopter – operating under the control of the Government’s “Tiger Forces” – departed Dumayr airbase and dropped two yellow chlorine cylinders, hitting two residential buildings.
Mr. Arias appeared via videolink, alongside Santiago Oñate Laborde, head of the Investigation and Identification Team, whose presence – and the credibility of the team he leads – is the subject of strong objections by several Council members.
‘Lethal’ incident in Douma
Recounting the events that likely took place on 7 April 2018, Mr. Arias said the helicopter left the airbase between 19:10 and 19:40 local time, and dropped the chlorine gas cylinders soon after.
Some individuals in the residential buildings sought refuge in the basement, thinking that location would offer better protection from the conventional air strikes that were occurring at the time.
Others were aware of the chemical’s presence and, knowing it was heavier than air, moved to higher floors of the building to try to find safety.
However, said the Director-General, both the basement – where the gas expanded – and the upper floors, where the cylinder was releasing gas in high concentration, “were lethal places to stay”.
Mr. Arias noted that the new report elaborates on the conclusions reached by an OPCW fact-finding mission in 2019, namely that high concentrations of chlorine gas were the source of the tragedy in Douma.
The Investigation and Identification Team took over that work and conducted its own research between January 2021 and December 2022.
Beyond the Douma incident, it has identified the Syrian armed forces as the perpetrators of several other chemical weapons attacks.
“The evidence collected and analyzed not only validated and corroborated [the fact-finding mission’s] conclusions, it also refuted all other alleged scenarios,” said the Director-General.
Recalling that every report produced by the OPCW follows the highest standards and best practices used by international investigative bodies to reach solid conclusions, Mr. Arias said that the Team’s conclusions were based on analysis of diverse, numerous pieces of evidence.
That includes witness testimony, medical records, chemical and ballistic studies, foreign expertise, computer modelling, satellite imagery and photography, among other sources.
Emphasizing that the team is not a judicial body and lacks the authority to assign individual criminal responsibility, he said its mandate is rather to establish the facts and identify the perpetrators.
“The report is now in your hands,” he told the Security Council, adding that it will be up to the UN and the international community to take further steps or actions deemed necessary.
Santiago Oñate Laborde, Coordinator of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team, echoed support for his team’s impartiality and careful methodology.
Noting that it relies on the voluntary cooperation of all States parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention – which includes Syria – he said they are expected to provide access to locations being investigated, as well as relevant information, which Syria has largely failed to do.
As part of its work, the team considered the positions expressed by Syria and its partners regarding the Douma incident, including the scenario that it was staged by terrorists with support from Western States.
Mr. Laborde said that, after examining various hypotheses, those scenarios were ruled out, as they were not supported by any evidence.
‘Danger to us all’
Also briefing the Council on Tuesday was Izumi Nakamitsu, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, who commended the OPCW for its professional and impartial efforts to uphold the global norm against the use of chemical weapons.
She said the organization’s efforts to clarify outstanding issues on Syria’s initial and subsequent declarations on its chemical weapons programme – first requested in 2013, when the Council mandated its complete elimination – have once again not progressed since her last briefing, in January.
In response to the stalemate, OPCW recently deployed a “reduced” team to conduct “limited in-country activities” in Syria.
“There is an urgent need to not only identify, but to hold accountable, all those who would dare to use chemical weapons in violation of international law,” she stressed, describing any such actions as unacceptable and the absence of accountability as a “danger to us all”.