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.


Appeals for calm after Lebanese protester shot dead in front of wife and child

Updated 52 min 58 sec ago

Appeals for calm after Lebanese protester shot dead in front of wife and child

  • Demonstrators call on president to leave country as Aoun tells them to ‘migrate’
  • Banks, schools closed for second day running

BEIRUT: A Lebanese soldier has been detained and an investigation launched after an anti-government protester was shot in the head in front of his wife and child.

The wounded demonstrator, Alaa’ Abu Fakher, a member of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) led by influential Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, was rushed to hospital but died from his injuries.

The shooting took place in the coastal town of Khalde, south of Beirut, as the Lebanese army attempted to break up a protesters’ roadblock.

The action was part of the latest wave of demonstrations to hit the country which followed comments made by President Michel Aoun in a TV interview on Tuesday evening. When asked if he felt the Lebanese people had lost faith in the ruling authority, Aoun said: “If they cannot find anyone in power who is honest and genuine, let them migrate … they will not reach the authority.”

As news spread on social media, angry groups again took to the streets, blocking roads, burning tires, and calling on Aoun to leave the country.

The army and republican guard were forced to set up a cordon to stop crowds marching on the presidential palace to protest at the president’s failure to announce a date for consultations on the formation of a new government, following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Cameras witnessed the incident in which Fakher was shot, and Jumblatt later appealed for supporters to remain calm. He also phoned the commander of the Lebanese Army, Gen. Joseph Aoun, and said: “In spite of what happened, we have no other refuge than the state. If we lose hope in the state, we enter chaos.”

Calling on Lebanese citizens “to maintain their peaceful protests,” caretaker PM Hariri stressed “the need to take all measures to protect citizens and ensure protesters’ safety.”

Army officials said a soldier had been detained over the Fakher incident and an investigation into the incident was underway.

Protesters in Beirut reacted to the shooting by throwing stones at soldiers, and in the Christian-majority town of Jal El-Dib, church bells rang to mourn the victim.

One activist in Jal El-Dib said: “The president was not fair at all in his interview. We are respectful people and not thugs. We took to the streets to make him hear our voices, but he is still not listening to us.”

Another woman said: “Does the president know that our salaries have been cut in half, that people are eating from the garbage, and that young people are being fired from their jobs, while taxes are imposed and we are accused of disrupting the lives of people? Are we not the people?”

A protester on Beirut’s Ring Bridge highway said: “We withdrew from the streets and protested in squares hoping that our voice had been heard and that the authority would meet our demands, but they thought that our revolution had ended and they could go back to the same ruling authority. Our revolution is stronger now more than ever and we are not going to leave the streets anymore.”

On Wednesday banks, schools and universities throughout Lebanon remained closed. 

According to media sources, Hariri was unlikely to preside over the next Cabinet, with Aoun and his allies, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, insisting on a new government made up of an equal mix of politicians and technocrats. Protesters and Hariri however want a technocrat-led government.

On Tuesday night, during the Paris Peace Forum, the Russian foreign minister said that “the idea of forming a technocrat government in Lebanon is not realistic.”

In meetings with Lebanese officials, Christophe Varno, the French envoy, responsible for France’s MENA affairs, conveyed his country’s concerns to Aoun “to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, safety and unity of people.” 

He also indicated France’s “commitment to help Lebanon overcome the current hardships.”

But Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told Varno that “no foreign sides should interfere in and use the Lebanese crisis,” adding that “the formation of a new government is a national matter and it has reached advanced and positive phases.”