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Did OPCW 'Confirm' Syria Has No Chemical Weapons?

Russian Foreign Ministry

Russian Foreign Ministry

“The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed that Syria’s chemical arsenal was completely destroyed under international supervision.”

... in fact OPCW has more doubts and questions.

On August 22, 2017, four years and a day after the horrific Ghouta chemical attack that left hundreds of civilians dead, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning what the ministry claimed was the United States’ “disdainful hypocrisy” in accusing the regime of Bashar al-Assad of carrying out not only the 2013 massacre, but the April 4, 2017, Khan Sheikhoun attack. has already fact-checked several Russian claims regarding Assad regime’s use of the nerve agent Sarin in these two attacks - something which the Kremlin continues to deny despite abundant evidence - but one claim made in the latest Russian Foreign Ministry statement stuck out.

According to ministry, the U.S. government’s assertion that the Assad regime was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack is contradicted by the fact that:

“The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed that Syria’s chemical arsenal was completely destroyed under international supervision.”

This is simply not true.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was tasked with overseeing the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles after an agreement was brokered by Russia and the United States in September, 2013, has emphatically stated that they can only attest to the destruction of the stockpiles of chemical weapons and precursors that were declared by the Syrian government.

Speaking to Australia’s ABC news on July 25, 2017, the OPCW’s director-general, Ahmet Uzumcu, said:

“Since spring 2014, there have been several questions as to whether Syria declared everything it possessed with regards to its chemical weapons program. And we have raised questions - there are still gaps, inconsistencies that need to be clarified by the Syrian authorities. There are suspicions that some chemical weapons are still hidden by the Syrian government. The recent incident in Khan Sheikhoun does reinforce such suspicions.”

A year earlier a report written by Uzumcu and seen by Foreign Policy stated that more and more gaps in the Assad regime’s declarations were becoming apparent as the OPCW continued its work:

In a confidential two-page summary of the report, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu writes that the majority of 122 samples taken at “multiple locations” in Syria “indicate potentially undeclared chemical weapons-related activities.” Many of Syria’s explanations for the presence of undeclared agents, he added, “are not scientifically or technically plausible, and … the presence of several undeclared chemical warfare agents is still to be clarified.”

This situation does not appear to have improved. Just a week before the Russian Foreign Ministry released its latest statement, Reuters published a report based on information from chemical weapons inspectors and diplomatic sources, who said that the Assad regime has been far from forthcoming in its declarations:

Syria's declarations about the types and quantities of chemicals it possessed do not match evidence on the ground uncovered by inspectors. Its disclosures, for example, make no mention of sarin, yet there is strong evidence that sarin has been used in Syria, including this year. Other chemicals found by inspectors but not reported by Syria include traces of nerve agent VX, the poison ricin and a chemical called hexamine, which is used to stabilise sarin.

Syria told inspectors in 2014-2015 that it had used 15 tonnes of nerve gas and 70 tonnes of sulphur mustard for research. Reuters has learnt that inspectors believe those amounts are not "scientifically credible." Only a fraction would be needed for research, two sources involved in inspections in Syria said.

At least 2,000 chemical bomb shells, which Syria said it had converted to conventional weapons and either used or destroyed, are unaccounted for, suggesting that they may still be in the hands of Syria's military.

Given the frankness of statements from the OPCW director-general in public, let alone more explicit statements from inspectors speaking under condition of anonymity, it cannot be seen how the Russian Foreign Ministry can justify its claim that the OPCW has overseen the complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, nor how this could prove that the regime was not responsible for Khan Sheikhoun.