Washington/Paris: France said on Tuesday it was very likely that evidence was disappearing from the location of a suspected poison gas attack in Syria and it called for international inspectors be given full and quick access to the site.
When the investigators of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are called in, time always matters. OPCW is tasked with examining some of the most horrific incidents of suspected chemical weapons attacks and the perpetrators usually seek to erase any traces of their work before the highly skilled investigators arrive.
OPCW personnel arrived in Syria on Saturday to investigate a suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, which the US and other Western countries say was committed by the Al Assad regime. After five days of delay in Syria and 11 days since the attack itself, the OPCW may now finally be allowed access to the site on Wednesday, according to the Russian government, one of Syria’s main backers.
How will the OPCW examine the site?
Although the Syrian regime has offered the OPCW access to what it said were 22 witnesses of the attack, an OPCW investigation necessarily relies on probes that can only be conducted on the site of a suspected attack. While in Douma, the investigators are expected to gather soil samples that could ultimately be used to determine which chemicals were used.
“What you’re trying to do is a combination of things: You try to investigate the actual location that was impacted, which gives you a clue of what the site looks like and whether you can find remnants of the weapons themselves,” said Ralf Trapp, an international disarmament expert who has worked with the OPCW.
“If no weapons are found, environmental samples of soil, rubble or vegetation can also be helpful to the investigation, even though chemicals eventually degrade due to environmental factors. Lastly, you can talk to eyewitnesses and take blood or urine samples. But all of this depends on how much time you have on the ground,” said Trapp.
And how much time the OPCW has will largely depend on the regime accused of conducting the attack — which is now technically the investigators’ “host country.”
The Syrian regime is believed to have used sarin and chlorine gas on a number of occasions. Separately, the OPCW has also accused Daesh of using mustard gas.
There are growing suspicions that evidence of the incident may have been tampered with, however. “It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site. We are concerned they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation,” US ambassador to the OPCW Kenneth Ward said in comments at a closed-door meeting of the OPCW in The Hague. Russia has rejected the accusation.
How and why was the OPCW created?
The US-Russia confrontation over Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons shows how complicated OPCW’s mission really is.
Throughout the 20th century, efforts to ban chemical weapons repeatedly failed and even the 1925 Geneva Protocol only banned their use but not the possession. To confront the issue, OPCW finally began its work in 1997 — based on a more expansive arms treaty known as the Chemical Weapons Convention — that had been signed by a number of countries four years earlier.
Chemical weapons investigations polarise. Why is OPCW still considered impartial?
Could Syria have underestimated the international backlash this time? The answer may depend on OPCW’s findings and how they will be interpreted by its member states.
Theoretically, there shouldn’t be any reason to doubt the organisation’s work. “As an international organisation, the OPCW is driven by its own rules. Its impartiality is fundamental,” said Trapp. Russia is as much involved in the OPCW as the US and procedures are based on a convention all member states agreed on.
The organisation’s rules now apply to 192 countries and cover 98 per cent of the world’s population. Apart from conducting independent investigations, its mission consists of monitoring the destruction of chemical agents that has led to the removal of 96 per cent of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpile, according to OPCW’s own statistics.
But even though impartiality is the basis for OPCW’s work, Russia has recently begun to cast doubt on some of the organisation’s findings, which could ultimately pose a serious challenge to its broader mission.