The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has informed the UN Security Council that out of 77 incidents of chemical attacks blamed on the Syrian regime that it has investigated, 17 were likely or definitely found to have involved the illegal substances.
Describing the uncertainty over Syria's continued chemical weapons programme and its suspected stockpile as "a disturbing reality," the head of the OPCW, Fernando Arias, revealed that the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad is still suspected of committing 17 chemical attacks against its civilian population.
Arias also revealed that he informed the regime of his intentions to send an OPCW team to Syria in order to continue investigations from May 18 to June 1 and had requested visas, but did not receive any response. "I decided to postpone the mission until further notice," he added.
In his organisation's next consultations and meetings with Damascus, he said, a priority to be addressed will be "the presence of a new chemical weapons agent found in samples collected in large storage containers in September 2020."
Over the decade of Syria's ongoing conflict, numerous reports of chemical weapons attacks have emerged, with the regime being accused of carrying them out. After finally joining the OPCW at the behest of his ally Russia, Assad announced in 2014 that the he had completely destroyed his chemical weapons stockpiles and scrapped the programme.
However, following further chemical attacks over the years, especially in 2017 and 2018, the international community and the OPCW has questioned whether the regime had actually destroyed its stockpiles. Earlier this year, a top UN official also admitted that it was unsure whether Damascus had got rid of its chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, Damascus and Moscow have repeatedly denied that the regime conducted the attacks. They blame them on opposition groups and civil defence teams, and allege that they were intended to frame Assad.
Russia hit back at the OPCW's announcement yesterday. Its Ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, accused the watchdog of collecting scant evidence from "pseudo witnesses" and "biased sources opposed to the Syrian government."
Expressing concern over the watchdog's alleged "increasing politicisation of its work, initiated by our Western colleagues," Nebenzia even questioned the OPCW's legitimacy. He claimed that it was "established illegitimately. You cannot expect that Syria will be cooperating with it."
Britain's UN Ambassador, Barbara Woodward, and the US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills both condemned the stances taken by Syria and Russia. They insisted that the two coordinate in spreading disinformation and called on them to cooperate with the international watchdog.
On 21 April, the OPCW suspended Syria's voting rights until the resolution of all outstanding issues, following calls by France to do so and an unprecedented vote.