Home Diplomatic Pouch “Rising Tensions within OPCW”

“Rising Tensions within OPCW”

H.E. Mr. Alexander Shulgin, Ambassador of the Russian Federation.

“Tensions within OPCW are rising”, says Russian envoy at OPCW, Alexander Shulgin. The suppression by the chemical weapons watchdog of its own engineers report on the alleged chemical attack in Douma “is only another detonator which could unleash the explosive trends in our organisation.”

By Eric van de Beek.

On April 14, 2018, the US, France, and Great Britain launched a missile attack on Syria, in retribution for an alleged poison gas attack on Douma, Syria, at that time occupied by Army of Islam, for which they held the Syrian government responsible. Although chemical weapons watchdog OPCW did not identify any culprit in its final report, published in March 2019, it suggested the Syrian army was responsible for dropping two cylinders on the Damascus suburb from the air. This now has become under debate. In May of this year an internal document was leaked from OPCW to a group of British academics. The author, Ian Henderson, concluded that there was a “higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft”. 

Also, last month in Bruxelles, a panel of eminent individuals, among whom former OPCW-director-general José Bustani, met with a whistleblower of the investigation team of OPCW. Based on the information the engineer presented, among which internal emails, text exchanges and suppressed draft reports, the panel released a statement in which it expressed its concern over “unacceptable practices” in the investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma.

H.E. Mr. Alexander Shulgin, ambassador of the Russian Federation in The Hague and envoy at OPCW, has been expressing his doubts about the investigation from the start. He also has warned for a military conflict between Russia and US that accidently could arise as a result of unjustified accusations against the Syrian government about the use of chemical weapons.

At a press conferencein July 2019 you compared the three-party airstrike on Syria to the Cuban Missile Crisis. You said: “There was a smell of gunpowder in the air.” Why is it you think the situation was as dangerous as in 1962?

There were and there are Russian troops in Syria. And imagine what would have happened if the “smart missiles” of the Western coalition had accidentally flown in the wrong direction and hit our Khmeimim air base or any other Russian presence in Syria. That would have been an attack on us and we would have to defend ourselves and react. When the US announced they would launch an airstrike against Syrian targets, the Russian military warned the US that should any of their missiles fly towards any of our military bases they not only would be taken down but the carriers of these missiles would also be targeted. The US president then send out this tweet  “Get ready Russia. Because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!”We were actually on the brink of major confrontation between two nuclear superpowers. Fortunately we avoided the worst-case scenario.

Why is it you think the US, Great Britain and France immediately put the blame on the Syrian government and started their airstrike before OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) had even started its investigation?

That’s because their agenda was and still is to topple the legitimate Syrian government. And that’s why the Americans, French and British were not interested in any investigation into the Douma incident by the OPCW. They needed only an excuse to carry out an act of aggression against Syria. By doing so, not only did they violate the UN Charter, but they also showed disrespect for the OPCW.

It was not the first time something like this happened. The Americans have stated more than once they didn’t need any investigation by the OPCW. You will remember the US executed a missile strike on Syria in reaction to the alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun in April 2017. I remember being at the State Department in Washington, the day after the incident, as part of the delegation of OPCW. The lady we talked to was convinced Khan Sheikhun was “yet another crime committed by the Syrian regime”. I was the only member of the delegation to ask her a question: “Wouldn’t it be wise to wait for the conclusions of OPCW before taking action?” But she just brushed aside my remark, saying: “We don’t need this. Based on our intelligence we are pretty sure what happened there.”

At the press conference you blamed OPCW for being responsible for the three-party airstrike. Why is that? The missiles struck Syria before the investigation of the FFM had even started and OPCW had spoken out.

Indeed, the FFM is indirectly responsible for this. This mission has more than once taken for granted dubious, so-called evidence, coming from unknown sources and presented to her by forces that oppose the Bashar al-Assad government. Thus, a consistent background was created in support of the thesis advocated by the western countries that the “bloody regime” in Damascus was committing chemical crimes and should be held accountable. If the work of the FFM were truly objective, impartial, then the reports it had issued before the events in the Douma probably would not have appeared. 

At the press conference you mentioned all reports about chemical attacks in Syria resurface against the backdrop of victories held by government forces. Are you suggesting the Syrian government has never performed a chemical attack, and that all these reports are in fact false flags, staged by rebels to provoke military action by the US and its allies?

There have been reports by JIM, the Joint Investigative Mechanism of OPCW and the UN in Syria. In three cases they blamed the Syrian Government for chemical attacks, and in one case Islamic State. But we were not convinced at all the Syrian government was to blame for any of these incidents. For instance in the case of Khan Sheikhun the point of impact of the cylinder did not match with the flight path of the Syrian plane that had supposedly dropped it. It was against all ballistic laws. In another case [Sarmin] the diameter of the cylinder that had allegedly been dropped from high altitude into a ventilator shaft that was exactly the same as the diameter of the shaft. One in a million chance it really happened like that.

The Syrian government used to provide elementary reports to OPCW about provocations under preparation by the armed opposition. But these reports – to put it mildly – were not very well treated. I remember once the director-general of OPCW agreed to send a special mission to investigate reports of the Syrian government about depots of ammunitions and chemical devices, discovered on territory liberated from the armed opposition, the terrorists. This mission went to Syria, and when they came back there was a briefing, organized at the OPCW headquarters in The Hague. I vividly remember the chief of the mission saying: “We discovered lots of chlorine cylinders, but these cylinders can be purchased in any convenience store. As you know, chlorine is used to purify swimming pool water.” Everybody was baffled actually. He seemed to suggest Syria was a wealthy prosperous country with fully operational swimming pools everywhere, while at that time Syria was completely devastated, in ruins. It didn’t seem to matter to him that alongside these chlorine cylinders detonators and fuses were found. In his mind the cylinders were stored there just for domestic purposes, not to produce chemical weapons.

Since the engineers report that was leaked from OPCW about the Douma incident contradicts the official OPCW report you suggested a general briefing of OPCW with all experts who had worked on the Douma case. But the Technical Secretariat denied your request. Why?

I proposed such briefing during the March session of the Executive Council. A representative of the US delegation then took the floor saying he opposed a briefing, because it would encourage the Russian site to replicate Stalinist trials, with cross-examinations and intimidations of witnesses. The US delegation then suggested putting the question of a briefing to a vote. Given the fact that the Americans and their allies have a comfortable majority within the Executive Council our proposal was simply rejected. 

H.E. Mr. Alexander Shulgin, Ambassador of the Russian Federation.

What will be Russia’s next step towards the Technical Secretariat of OPCW to clarify the discrepancies between de official report and the leaked engineers report? 

We have sent two verbal notes in which we asked to publish the results of the three reports of so-called independent experts, on the basis of which in the final report on Douma it was concluded that the chlorine cylinders broke a roof and hit the rooms from the air. The first time our request was denied on the pretext of alleged need for protection from public exposure of those specialists who carried out this examination. We made a second request, explaining that we did not ask to disclose the names of these people or their nationality, but just to disclose their reports, for all Member States to be able to read the technical calculations prepared by them in order to understand how convincing they are. A long time has passed now; we are still waiting for an answer.

The amazing thing is: the Director-General of OPCW urges us to trust the findings from the FFM like the gospel word while at the same time putting the emphasis not on the conclusions of the experts of FFM but rather on the conclusions provided by three so called independent experts. The refusal of the Technical Secretariat to unveil the reports of these anonymous outside experts makes us question whether these reports ever existed.  

If I understand you well you question the existence of these reports, but not the existence of the external experts? Do you know who they are? And have they ever been to Douma to do research at the alleged crime scene?

There has been no research of external experts in Douma and I mayknow the name of one of them. He has a rather dubious reputation in terms of his impartiality, and he is anything but a specialist in ballistics. But I can’t tell you his name. We are bound to respect the confidentiality rules of the Technical Secretariat. 

Until June 2019 OPCW was not authorized to attribute blame for chemical attacks. This changed with the establishment of the Investigation and Identification Team (ITT). Russia disagrees. Why is that?

We do not agree with the creation of the attributive mechanism in OPCW because such functions are not provided for in the UN Chemical Weapons Convention. There is nothing like it and never has been. Moreover as we have repeatedly stated, the OPCW Technical Secretariat is illegitimately authorized to identify those responsible for chemical crimes; it’s an intrusion into the exclusive prerogatives of the UN Security Council to designate perpetrators. Only this body and international courts have the right to attribute and punish those responsible for the commission of the most serious crimes under international law.

In June 2018 the US and its allies literally pushed OPCW’s attribution decision to be voted at the Conference of States Parties (CSP). Less than half of the members of the OPCW voted ‘yes’, but because of the way votes are counted at the CSP the proposal to move the attributive mechanism from the UN Security Council to OPCW was nevertheless adopted. Washington has long embarked on a slippery slope when it seeks to replace international legal norms with the so-called rules that it itself creates on the move in order to advance its geopolitical interests.

The reason behind taking the attribution away from the UN Security Council in New York and bring it to OPCW in The Hague was that Russia and China would no longer be able to veto initiatives from the western powers. This was openly said by western delegations. And they didn’t even bother to present justifications for this based on provisions in the Chemical Weapons Convention. 

Russia is not against attributing blame to those who have used chemical weapons?

Not at all. We proposed the prolongation of the mandate of the Joint Investigation Mission (JIM), under the condition JIM would operate in strict compliance with the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention and under supervision of the UN Security Council. The western countries just bluntly rejected this proposal.   

I understand you think OPCW has become a tool for the US to undermine the authority of the UN Security Council and the Chemical Weapons Convention?

Indeed. There is extreme politicisation in the way OPCW is acting. The Technical Secretariat has come under a very strong influence of the Americans and their allies.The practice of consensus driven decision-making has been completely forgotten. Tensions are getting higher and the scandal around the FFM report is only another detonator that could unleash the explosive trends in our organisation. For some time this was all happening behind closed doors and only national delegations knew of it. But now this is an open issue, outside of OPCW. And even Dutch parliamentarians here in The Hague are concerned about the OPCW situation. They have sent a requestto the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands asking what’s happening in the OPCW. It is clear that is cannot continue this way. We would like to hope that we can come back to the normal working practice, since the current OPCW leadership always says that our organisation should be our common home, where each and every one of us, each delegation has the right to state its concerns and problems – an organisation, where we can take into consideration our interests and speak on a basis of mutual respect, and discuss all our problems.

You explained the grip of the US on OPCW by the steadfast support of its many allies in the Executive Council. Are there any other explanations? The former head of OPCW, José Bustani,declared that in 2002, in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, John Bolton, then serving as under secretary of state for Arms Control and International Security Affairs,threatened him by saying: We know where your children live.”

I’d rather not comment on that. 

At the press conference you said: “He who pays the piper decides the tune.” You referred to the way the FFM in Syria is being financed, namely by the US and its allies.

The activities of the Fact Finding Team are funded by voluntary contributions, mainly coming from the US and other western countries. Of course, it would be more correct to finance these activities from the regular budget of OPCW. But then it would be necessary to increase the annual budgetary contributions of the States Parties, which many developing countries strongly oppose. 

So why doesn’t the Russian delegation financially contribute to the FFM?

We are of the view that the activities of the FFM are not in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. For instance, the members of the FFM are supposed to collect samples themselves at the place of the incident, and, all the more important, take custody of the collected evidence. Many times this basic procedure has not been respected at all. Questions I asked about this have not been properly addressed.

Also, I insisted upon the necessity for the Fact Finding Team to be better represented geographically, not solely consisting of experts from countries hostile to the Syrian government. But this was turned down. The former Director-General said two years ago: “I will never invite Russians, nor Iranians, because they belong to parties fighting in Syria.” And so I asked him: “What about the other countries fighting in Syria?” But I received no reply to that question.

Still nothing prevents us from working with western countries to overcome the current situation. And hopefully we will resume the practice of consensus driven decision-making. Let’s be constructive and optimistic.

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