Top watchdog voices concerns over Syria’s chemical weapons

UN special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, speaks to journalists upon his arrival in Damascus on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 09 July 2019

Top watchdog voices concerns over Syria’s chemical weapons

  • UN envoy arrives in Damascus amid violent clashes in the north of the country

THE HAGUE: Member states of the global chemical weapons watchdog voiced concern Tuesday that Syria may still possess such weapons after inspectors discovered traces of what could be a byproduct of a nerve agent or poison gas at a Syrian research facility.

In a report submitted to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ Executive Council, the organization’s director-general said the traces were found late last year at Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center in Barzah.

Canada’s OPCW envoy, Sabine Nolke, said in a speech to the meeting that the discovery, and reports that Syria destroyed equipment and munitions that had been earmarked for further assessment, add to “growing evidence of deliberately false declarations by Syria, destruction of possible evidence, and the alarming likelihood that Syria continues to possess Schedule 1 chemicals.” Schedule 1 chemicals include sarin, VX and sulfur mustard.

Director-General Fernando Arias also reported that Syria has refused to issue a visa to the coordinator of an OPCW team that aims to attribute blame for chemical weapons attacks in the country.

Britain’s OPCW representative, Ambassador Peter Wilson, called that decision “completely unacceptable” in a speech to the behind-closed-doors meeting. The text of Wilson’s speech was published online.

“Syria insists that it has no chemical weapons program — why then is it trying so hard to prevent those who have used chemical weapons on its territory from being identified?” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, the UN’s special envoy for Syria said Tuesday he is looking forward to constructive discussions with the regime officials on the formation of a constitutional committee as a “door opener for the broader political process.”

Geir Pedersen spoke with reporters in Damascus shortly after arriving from neighboring Beirut. 

He is scheduled to hold meetings with the regime officials on Wednesday.

“I’m looking forward to have what I believe are constructive discussions on how to move the political process forward,” Pedersen said, adding he would also discuss ways to end the fighting in northwestern Idlib province.

Fighting in the country has raged in and around Idlib as regime troops backed by Russia seek to make advances on the ground against insurgents who control the province.

Pedersen’s arrival also coincided with a new rebel offensive in the mountains of the coastal Latakia province, with opposition activists saying rebels overran a series of regime troops’ positions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes are underway in several locations in the Turkman Mountains. 

It said the fighting  killed 35 people on both sides in the opening hours. 

Pedersen’s visit to Syria follows meetings he held with Russian officials in Moscow on Friday, where he urged Russia to help stabilize the violence in Idlib and support drafting the country’s new constitution. Following his meetings there, he said “we now seem to be closer to establishing a constitutional committee.”

The UN hopes that convening the constitutional committee would be the first step toward a new constitution and new elections.

However, the regime have said it will not accept outside dictates when it comes to Syria’s constitution and have suggested Assad might even run for re-election.

The more than yearlong effort to form a 150-member constitutional committee has been dogged by objections from the regime over the 50-member list representing experts, independents, tribal leaders and women. 

There is already agreement on 50-member lists from the government and the opposition.

Pedersen has also been calling for confidence-building measures between the government and the opposition such as prisoner releases.


Family stayed in Syrian town during offensive as fighters ousted

Updated 56 sec ago

Family stayed in Syrian town during offensive as fighters ousted

  • A renewed push by Syrian regime and Russian forces to take the area has seen heavy strikes and advances this week in the south of Idlib province and nearby Hama, prompting a civilian exodus

KHAN SHEIKHOUN: Russia-backed Syrian regime forces found Abu Abdo and family this week in Khan Sheikhoun, a town which almost all other residents had fled during shelling in an offensive to take the area from opposition fighters.

“The last month was very bad. We couldn’t stand by the door because of the shelling ... We couldn’t go anywhere,” 55-year-old Abu Abdo told Reuters.

He said his was one of only around three families that stayed in the town through the offensive while all other civilians fled north, away from the shelling.

“When the army came they opened the door of the house and entered, thinking no one was here. But when they saw us they were very respectful and asked us what we needed,” he said from his house which had a couple of shell holes in the walls.

Khan Sheikhoun was one of the towns lost early in the eight-year-old war to opposition fighters opposed to the rule of Syria’s Bashar Assad. On Friday the Syrian forces said they had taken it back, along with a handful of other settlements.

“The fighters ran away a day before the army entered. There was a huge number of fighters here,” Abu Abdo said, referring to the opposition.

A renewed push by Syrian regime and Russian forces to take the area has seen heavy strikes and advances this week in the south of Idlib province and nearby Hama, prompting a civilian exodus.

Hundreds of people have been killed in the campaign since late April and more than 500,000 people have been displaced, the UN said.

“The operation (to take Khan Sheikhoun) was difficult. The rebels were holed up for a month under heavy, continuous bombardment. Which caused them to withdraw to the north,” a military official said.

A Reuters team traveled to Khan Sheikhoun up a newly opened and de-mined part of the main south-north highway which once connected the capital Damascus to Aleppo. The sound of planes and distant explosions could still be heard in the large town in south Idlib province, heavily damaged by repeated aerial campaigns.

Khan Sheikhoun made headlines in 2017. Nearly 100 people died when the town was bombed with sarin poison gas. One of the deadliest chemical weapons attacks of the war, it prompted a US missile strike against a Syrian air base.