May 24, 2019

Russia and Syria criticize OPCW report on the alleged chemical attack in Douma, 2018

By Guido Lanfranchi.

At a joint press conference held in The Hague, Russian and Syrian representatives at the OPCW criticized the organization’s recently published report on the alleged chemical attacks of April 7th, 2018 in Douma, Syria. Nevertheless – Russian Ambassador H.E. Mr. Alexander Shulgin said – Russia will not give up its quest to clarify what happened in Douma one year ago.

On March 1st, 2019, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) issued the report of its Fact Finding Mission (FFM) on the allegation of chemical weapons use in Douma, Syria, on April 7th, 2018. On March 11th, 2019, the Russian mission to the OPCW, together with its Syrian counterpart, organized a press conference to issue a preliminary assessment of the OPCW report.

In the wake of the allegation of chemical weapons use in Douma last year, the OPCW had sent an independent mission to assess the situation on the ground. The mission managed to access Douma only on April 15th, a day after the retaliation strikes launched by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government of Mr. Bashar al-Asad. After almost a year of analysis, the report issued on March 1st stated that the evidence gathered by the FFM “provide[s] reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon has taken place” in Douma, although it refrained from blaming any actors for the incident.

During the March 11th press conference, Ambassador Shulgin criticized the report issued by the FFM, pointing the finger at “internal inconsistencies, discrepancies and gaps”. In particular, he disputed the report’s ballistic analyses, its high estimates of casualties, as well as its inconsistency in dealing with information coming from the White Helmets (WH). This group, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, defines itself as a volunteer organization supporting civilian victims of attacks, but it has been accused by Damascus and Moscow of being affiliated with terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

Moreover, Ambassador Shulgin criticized the FFM’s report for not taking into consideration large part of the evidence submitted by Russia in the wake of the alleged attacks. In April 2018, the Russian delegation in The Hague had organized an event on the Douma attacks, flying in from Damascus a number of witnesses who denounced the alleged attack as a farce. Such evidence, however, was only vaguely mentioned in the report – Mr. Shulgin regretted, accusing the OPCW’s experts of not having the courage to counter the pressure exercised by the U.S.-led coalition.

Stressing the importance of providing the international public with appropriate information, H.E. Mr. Bassam Sabbah, Syrian Permanent Representative to the OPCW, added new elements of criticism to the FFM’s report. He denounced the FFM for not living up to the OPCW standards in terms of sampling, interviewing and cooperation with the host government, in spite of what he defined as the Syrian government’s “utmost cooperation” with the mission. In particular, Mr. Sabbagh regretted the OPCW’s use of extra samples outside those officially extracted by the FFM staff in Douma, as well as the reliance on interviews to individuals whose background and relation to the incident remain unclear.

The accusations of the Russian and Syrian diplomats were backed up by the more technical details provided by Mr. Sergey Kikot, chemical weapons expert at the Russian Ministry of Defence. Mr. Kikot underlined that although “Russia does not question the OPCW’s professionalism”, the FFM’s report contains analyses of dubious quality. Specifically, he questioned the report’s ballistic analyses, and dubbed its estimates of casualties, amounting to 43 victims and more than 500 injured, as unrealistic.

A further round of criticism was raised by Mr. Maxim Grigoriev, Director of the Russia-based Foundation for the Study of Democracy. Mr. Grigoriev specifically blamed the report for the poor standards of its interviews policy, as well as for the inconsistent use of information coming from the White Helmets. He welcomed the report’s denial of some claims arising from the WH, but at the same time regretted that in other parts of the report information provided by the WH was used as a reliable source. Repeatedly referring to tweets by the BBC Syria Producer Riam Dalati, Mr. Gregoriev dubbed such information as propaganda, and accused the WH of close affiliation with terrorist organizations operating in Syria.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Shulgin underlined that the Russian Mission to the OPCW will not give up its quest to clarify what happened in Douma on April 7th, 2018, and to overcome the excessive politicization that surrounded this issue in the discussions held at the OPCW over the last year.

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