Russia and West clash over Syria chemical weapons sanctions

Russia and West clash over Syria chemical weapons sanctions
Civil-defense personnel remove the remnants of a rocket reportedly fired by Syrian forces on the outskirts of the Douma town in the Ghouta region. (AFP/File)
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Updated 07 January 2021

Russia and West clash over Syria chemical weapons sanctions

Russia and West clash over Syria chemical weapons sanctions
  • The Western effort reflects a much broader effort to obtain accountability for Syrian chemical attacks

NEW YORK: Syria and close ally Russia clashed with the US and other nations over a Western initiative to suspend Syria’s voting rights in the global chemical weapons watchdog for failing to provide details of three chemical attacks in 2017 that investigators blamed on the Bashar Assad regime. 

The confrontation in the UN Security Council foreshadowed a showdown when the 193 member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) meet in The Hague, Netherlands, in April to consider a French-drafted measure, on behalf of 46 countries, to suspend Syria’s “rights and privileges” in the body. 

The French proposal was a response to Syria’s failure to meet a 90-day deadline set in July by the OPCW’s executive council for Damascus to declare the nerve agent sarin and chlorine, which OPCW investigators said last April were dropped by the Syrian air force on the central town of Latamneh in late March 2017. 

The Western effort reflects a much broader effort to obtain accountability for Syrian chemical attacks and highlight claims that the Assad regime is secretly continuing its chemical weapons program. 

Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, pressed by Russia after a deadly chemical weapons attack that the West blamed on Damascus. 

By August 2014, the Assad regime declared that the destruction of its chemical weapons was completed. But Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical stockpiles and chemical weapons production sites has remained in dispute. 

Ireland’s UN ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, a new council member, said it was “deeply disturbing” that the OPCW still cannot determine whether the initial declaration was accurate or complete because of gaps and inconsistencies. She said the problems are not “minor” as some would portray, alluding to Russia. 

“Over those seven years, the number of issues that need to be addressed has expanded from five to 19,” Byrne Nason said. “There have been 17 amendments to Syria’s declaration including the addition of a production facility, four research and development centers, and doubling of the amount of declared agents and chemicals.” 

In addition, she said, there are issues related to “hundreds of tons of missing agents and munitions reported destroyed” before Syria joined the chemical convention as well as recent reports of a production facility that Damascus declared as never having been used, “where there is clear evidence to the contrary.” 

Norwegian Ambassador Mona Juul, another new council member, also expressed concern at Syria’s failure to explain an unnamed chemical that can be used in chemical weapons but also has non-weapons uses. It was detected at the Barzah facilities of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. 

Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, again accused OPCW investigators of being “unscrupulous” and alleged they used “forgeries” and “manipulations” to blame Syria. 

He called the chemical watchdog “seriously ill with politicization.” And he accused a number of unnamed countries of “playing this `chemical card’ to step up pressure on the Syrian government that they failed to overthrow in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.” 

As for the initial Syrian declaration, Polyansky said Damascus was not “an extraordinary case,” pointing to amended declarations by Western countries including France and Germany as well as Libya. He accused Western delegations of trying to “inflate agitation” around Syria. 

French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere expressed regret at “the false accusations of those who seek to discredit OPCW” and its findings about Syria’s attacks. 

“There is simply the reality of the facts,” he said. “We all know them: the regime used weapons of war prohibited by international law against its own population, and since then we have seem chemical weapons re-emerge and become commonplace in Syria and elsewhere.” 

British Ambassador Barbara Woodward said OPCW investigators, alone and initially with a UN team, determined Syria used chemical weapons on at least six occasions. 

“These are not hypothetical issues for the thousands of Syrian civilians who have suffered the horrifying effects on the body of nerve agents and chlorine,” she said. 

Syria’s deputy foreign minister and former UN ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, accused some unnamed Western nations of using the OPCW “as a platform to fabricate allegations and then justify an assault and aggression on Syria.” 

The aim, he said, is “to frame the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons and exonerate the terrorists and the sponsors ... and give them the necessary means to escape through the occupied Golan area through Israel to the capitals of Western states where they can live.” 

Russia’s Polyansky said Syria could not meet the OPCW’s anti-Syria demands on Latamneh because it “simply doesn’t have” the chemical weapons and facilities the organization is seeking. 

“Hopefully, the majority of delegations at the member states’ conference in April will reject this provocation, and the West-initiated decision, which is `punitive’ by nature, will not pass,” he said. 

US deputy ambassador Richard Mills said neither the Security Council nor the world “is fooled” by Russia’s accelerated campaign to discredit the OPCW. 

He urged council members to call on all countries to support the French draft against Syria in April “aimed at promoting accountability for the Assad regime’s actions.” 

“It is time that the Syrian people, and indeed all the globe’s people, be allowed to live in a world free of the threat of chemical weapons,” he said.


Turkey, Iran at odds over operations on Iraqi soil

Turkey, Iran at odds over operations on Iraqi soil
Turkey has deployed several military outposts deep inside Iraqi territories for decades. (Reuters/File)
Updated 14 min 44 sec ago

Turkey, Iran at odds over operations on Iraqi soil

Turkey, Iran at odds over operations on Iraqi soil
  • Rhetorical tensions will escalate, but direct or proxy conflict highly unlikely: Oxford academic

ANKARA: The diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Tehran has escalated following the latest statement from Iran’s Ambassador to Baghdad Iraj Masjedi, who reiterated an opposition to Turkish military intervention in Iraq, a new move that highlights a broader rivalry between the two countries in the region.

“Turkish forces should not pose a threat or violate Iraqi soil,” Masjedi said on Sunday.
“We do not accept at all, be it Turkey or any other country, to intervene in Iraq militarily or advance or have a military presence in Iraq,” he said, calling on Ankara to withdraw its troops from Iraq and respect international borders.
“The security of the Iraqi area should be maintained by Iraqi forces and (Kurdistan) region forces in their area,” he said.
Turkey has deployed several military outposts deep inside Iraqi territories for decades to eradicate the presence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Its forces conduct aerial and ground cross-border operations, which have increased in recent years.
These operations have recently drawn anger from Baghdad over territorial violations of Turkish forces and aircraft. But Ankara has continued airstrikes in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to kill senior members of the PKK.
The latest Turkish operation on Feb. 19 to free 13 nationals held captive by the PKK for many years failed in the Gara mountains in northern Iraq.
While Ankara accused the PKK of killing the prisoners during the operation, the PKK asserted that Turkey fortuitously bombed the cave where the captives were held.
The Iran-backed Iraqi militia, the Popular Mobilization Units also known as Hashd Al-Shabi, has deployed three brigades to Sinjar along the Syrian border to counter Turkish moves in the region.
Ankara summoned the Iranian envoy on Sunday following his remarks on Iraq operations. “Ankara expects Iran to support, not oppose, Turkey’s fight against terrorism,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry reportedly told the ambassador.
“The Ambassador of Iran would be the last person to lecture Turkey about respecting the borders of Iraq,” said the Turkish Ambassador to Iraq Fatih Yildiz.
Turkey recently arrested an Iranian official Mohammad Reza Naserzadeh over the killing of an Iranian dissident, Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, who was murdered in Istanbul in November 2019. This move further strained ties between Turkey and Iran.
“Turkish-Iranian relations are set to become more turbulent,” Galip Dalay, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, told Arab News.
“Iraq still stands as the most important Middle Eastern country for Iran. The increased military presence and political leverage of Turkey in northern Iraq increasingly disturbs Iran, while the Iraqi central government would not welcome any Turkish operation into Sinjar,” Dalay added.
According to Samuel Ramani, an academic and analyst at Oxford University, Turkey-Iran relations are volatile, as phases of escalated competition and cooperation quickly follow each other.
Ramani told Arab News: “Right now, we are entering a phase of heightened competition, as Turkey sees a rising security threat from the PKK in Iraq, while Iran’s relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan has a positive moment following Iran’s most-senior commander Qassem Soleimani’s death last year.”
He added that Turkey’s expanded bilateral engagement with Iraq threatens Iran’s aspirations for hegemony, and that Iran is trying to capitalize on latent discontent in Baghdad with expansive Turkish military operations that violate Iraqi sovereignty.
“There is a broader context of tension between Turkey and Iran. Russia-Iran relations are growing in the Caspian region to counter Turkey, Ankara has arrested alleged Iranian spies and both countries are disagreeing over the situation in northern Syria, especially Ayn Issa,” he said.
Given the broader state of tensions, Ramani expects Turkey and Iran to continue having a rhetorical war of words about the legitimacy of Ankara’s anti-PKK operations and of Iran’s interference in Iraq, but direct conflict between Iranian and Turkish forces or local allies is unlikely.
But Dalay expects that a US-supported Turkish operation into Sinjar is highly likely. He said that if the ongoing crisis between Hashd Al-Shabi and Ankara escalates, Iran is likely to be drawn into this regional equation.
“Hashd Al-Shabi provides a cover to the PKK in the region, while the presence of Shingal Resistance Units, a Yazidi militia that collaborates with Hashd Al-Shabi, could trigger an international awareness about the Yazidi religious minority,” he said.


Syria reports Israeli missile attack near capital, Damascus

Syria reports Israeli missile attack near capital, Damascus
Updated 01 March 2021

Syria reports Israeli missile attack near capital, Damascus

Syria reports Israeli missile attack near capital, Damascus
  • Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years, but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations
  • Israel views Iranian entrenchment on its northern frontier as a red line

DAMASCUS: Syrian air defenses were activated in the capital Damascus and its southern suburbs Sunday night to repel an Israeli missile attack, state media reported. There was no word on casualties.
State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that most of the Israeli missiles were shot down before reaching their targets near Damascus.
Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years, but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations.
Israel views Iranian entrenchment on its northern frontier as a red line, and it has repeatedly struck Iran-linked facilities and weapons convoys destined for Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group.
The attack comes after the United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups.
The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.


UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home

UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home
Updated 28 February 2021

UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home

UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home
  • UNICEF made its plea a day after three children died in a fire at Al-Hol camp
  • Syria’s Kurds hold thousands of alleged militants in jails and tens of thousands of their family members in camps in northeast Syria

BEIRUT: The UN children’s agency called Sunday for all minors held in displacement camps or jails in northeast Syria to be allowed home.
UNICEF made its plea a day after three children died in a fire at the overcrowded camp of Al-Hol, for people displaced in the fight against Daesh.
After years of leading the US-backed fight against Daesh, Syria’s Kurds hold thousands of alleged militants in jails and tens of thousands of their family members in camps in northeast Syria.
They hail from Syria, neighboring Iraq and dozens of other foreign countries.
Many are children.
“In the northeast of Syria, there are more than 22,000 foreign children from at least 60 nationalities who languish in camps and prisons, in addition to many thousands of Syrian children,” UNICEF regional director Ted Chaiban said in a statement, without giving a number of children held in jails.
He urged authorities in the northeast of Syria and UN member states to “do everything possible to bring children currently in the northeast of Syria back home.”
They should do this “through integrating Syrian children in their local communities and the repatriation of foreign children,” he added.
The Kurdish authorities have started sending thousands of displaced Syrians home from the camps.
But repeated calls for Western countries to repatriate their nationals have largely fallen on deaf ears, with just a handful of children and even fewer women being brought home.
Three children and a woman died on Saturday after a stove exploded in the Al-Hol camp, starting a fire, a Kurdish official said.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said at least 26 were injured.
Al-Hol is home to more than 62,000 people, displaced family members and relatives of alleged IS fighters, more than half of them children, it says.
A spate of killings, including decapitations, has rocked the camp since the start of the year, and humanitarian actors have repeatedly deplored living conditions there.
On February 1, the Save the Children charity also urged Iraq and Western countries to repatriate children from northeast Syria faster.
Daesh overran large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed air strikes by a US-led coalition expelled Daesh from their last patch of territory in Syria in March 2019, in a battle that displaced tens of thousands.


Egypt opens online registration for COVID-19 vaccination

Egypt opens online registration for COVID-19 vaccination
Updated 28 February 2021

Egypt opens online registration for COVID-19 vaccination

Egypt opens online registration for COVID-19 vaccination
  • Text messages will be sent to prompt all those eligible to register for the vaccine as part of the Egyptian president’s initiative to eliminate waiting lists and facilitate the vaccination process

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Health and Population Hala Zayed announced on Sunday the start of online registration to obtain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination for eligible citizens.

Khaled Mujahid, the ministry’s spokesman, said that registration has begun for eligible groups, including persons with tumors and kidney failure; those who have undergone operations, including open-heart surgery, and kidney and liver operations; and those with cerebral or peripheral catheters.

Text messages will be sent to prompt all those eligible to register for the vaccine as part of the Egyptian president’s initiative to eliminate waiting lists and facilitate the vaccination process.

Mujahid said that offices have been allocated in health units and hospitals across Egypt to register those who are unable to do so online. The spokesman pointed out that the site informs citizens of all details concerning the vaccine and allows them to register their data so that priority is automatically given according to age and chronic disease.

Mujahid said that the categories of people eligible to register on the website are divided into three groups in line with universally recognized priorities. These groups include health workers, those with chronic diseases and the elderly.

He explained that those registering online will have to enter identifying data, including name, ID number and contact information, such as phone number, where a verification code will be sent. Following this, the governorate and nearest health unit where the citizen may be vaccinated are determined.


US disappointed by Iran move on nuclear talks, remains ready to engage

US disappointed by Iran move on nuclear talks, remains ready to engage
Updated 01 March 2021

US disappointed by Iran move on nuclear talks, remains ready to engage

US disappointed by Iran move on nuclear talks, remains ready to engage
  • US would consult P5+1 partners on the best way forward
  • Iran says US must lift all its unilateral sanctions first

WASHINGTON/TEHRAN: The United States on Sunday said it was disappointed that Iran had ruled out an informal meeting to discuss ways to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, but said it remained ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy on the issue.
“While we are disappointed at Iran’s response, we remain ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with JCPOA commitments,” a White House spokeswoman said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal.
She said Washington would be consulting with its P5+1 partners, the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom — plus Germany on the best way forward.
Iran dismissed Europe’s offer for an informal meeting, saying the time is not “suitable” as Washington has failed to lift sanctions.
The European Union’s political director earlier this month proposed the informal meeting involving all parties of the Vienna deal, a proposition accepted by US President Joe Biden’s administration.
Following Biden’s election, Washington, the European parties to the deal and Tehran have been trying to salvage the accord, which granted Iran international sanctions relief in return for restrictions on its nuclear program.
The accord has been nearing collapse since former president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
“Considering the recent positions and actions of the United States and the three European countries, (Iran) does not consider the time suitable to hold the informal meeting proposed by the European coordinator,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement.
“There has still been no change in the US positions and behavior yet,” he added, saying the Biden administration has continued “Trump’s failed policy of maximum pressure.”
Biden has signalled readiness to revive the deal, but insists Iran first return to all its nuclear commitments, most of which it suspended in response to the sanctions, while Tehran demands Washington take the first step by scrapping the sanctions.
The foreign ministry statement comes ahead of a quarterly meeting Monday of the United Nations nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors, which is likely to discuss Iran’s recent restrictions of some nuclear inspections.
“Remember: Trump failed to meet because of his ill-advised ‘Max Failure’,” Khatibzadeh wrote on Twitter shortly after his statement.
Tehran’s position is unchanged “with sanctions in place... Censuring is NOT diplomacy. It doesn’t work with Iran,” he added.
The US “has not even announced its commitment to fulfilling its responsibilities” under the deal and the UN Security Council resolution that enshrined it, the spokesman said in the statement.
“America must end its illegal and unilateral sanctions and return to its (deal) commitments. This needs neither negotiations nor resolutions,” he added.
Iran “will answer action with action, and just as it will return to (deal) commitments in accordance with the lifting of sanctions, it will respond to hostile actions and behaviors in the same way.”
Khatibzadeh said Tehran would continue to consult with other parties to the nuclear agreement, and European Union Foreign Minister Josep Borrell “in his capacity as the (deal) coordinator, both bilaterally and multilaterally.”
Iran last Tuesday started to restrict some site inspections by the IAEA, in continuation of suspended nuclear commitments in response to the US failure to lift its sanctions.
London, Paris and Berlin said they “deeply regret” the move and that they were “united in underlining the dangerous nature of this decision.”
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said last week an interim three-month deal agreed during a visit to Tehran was “far from an ideal situation,” but will allow the body to continue monitoring “all the key activities.”
It will facilitate “time for the indispensable diplomacy that will be deployed,” he added.
Under the temporary agreement, data on Iran’s nuclear program “will be stored and not handed over to the IAEA,” according to Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The Iranian Atomic Energy Organization has said that if US sanctions are still not lifted after three months, it will start erasing the recordings.
(With Reuters and AFP)