Statement by the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN Mr. V.Safronkov, at the UN Security Council Meeting on Chemical demilitarization of Syria
I thank the delegation of Italy for organizing today’s meeting in an open format, which allows us to bring the position of Russia on the issue before us home to all Member States.
We are grateful to Ms. Nakamitsu and Mr. Mulet for their briefings.
Russia strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons, wherever it is done and by whomever. In order to maintain the international non-proliferation regime, we deem it essential to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. However, systemic deficiencies have been found in the work of the existing international entities in the context of the Syrian chemical dossier. The results of their investigative activity on the use of toxic substances are deeply disappointing. Their mandates have been implemented selectively, without the use of the whole range of methods and means based on the high standards of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires first and foremost the collection of samples, interviewing witnesses and the gathering of evidence directly at the site of the incident.
The specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact-finding mission in the Syrian Arab Republic did their work remotely. Their report (see S/2017/567) was very mediocre, full of omissions, inconsistencies and contradictions. They did not comply with the basic principle of ensuring the secure preservation of physical evidence. Samples were received on the territory of a third country, with no certainty as to whether they were taken in Khan Shaykhun, some other place in Syria or even outside its borders. The key question about how the sarin was used and delivered to the site of the incident has not been clarified.
We were assured that a visit to Khan Shaykhun would be unsafe, although foreign experts from various States had allegedly been there the day after the chemical attack. No problems were encountered even with the Jabhat Al-Nusra terrorists. By the way, we asked our Western colleagues to share the details of their investigations so that our specialists could have a substantive discussion, but we were stonewalled. When we invited representatives of the Department of Safety and Security of the Secretariat to Security Council consultations on 4 October, it suddenly turned out that they had already managed to reach an agreement with the groups controlling the Khan Shaykhun district on the experts’ visit. We should remember, in that regard, that Riad Hijab, the Syrian opposition’s General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, had given security assurances in a letter that our British colleagues circulated to the Security Council. And yet for unknown reasons, the OPCW experts did not manage to visit the site of the incident.
Now began the unconvincing references to the power of science, thanks to which, apparently, everything could be ascertained without moving a step. Just imagine a situation where a case is being considered in court and it suddenly turns out that the investigators did not visit the scene of the crime. In judicial practice, this would be completely absurd. We were then told that the Syrian side had presented the results of its national investigation, confirming the use of sarin. Every line of the investigation apparently converged on the same conclusion and so the Director-General of the OPCW Technical Secretariat decided not to deploy a mission to Khan Shaykhun. Our Western colleagues, for the first time that we can remember, all began to make references to the Syrian investigation.
But I should like to point out that the Fact-finding Mission’s job is not solely to determine the fact that toxic substances have been used. It is also supposed to study all the available information on the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, as is written down in black and white in resolution 2209 (2015). The result has been that the OPCW mission failed to obtain key material evidence. All of its conclusions were based on circumstantial evidence, the overwhelming majority of which was provided by the opposition and non-governmental organizations that have been entirely compromised, such as the White Helmets, who are closely linked to the terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra. Taking information from them at face value sets a bad tone, to say the least.
Security conditions cannot be used as an excuse to justify the fact-finding mission’s refusal to visit the Shayrat airbase. The Syrian authorities were quick to guarantee secure access to the facility and asked that the visit be organized as soon as possible. Under its mandate, the OPCW mission has the right to access any areas that could be affected by the alleged use of chemical weapons. Nevertheless, its leadership did not consider it necessary to check the version of the story according to which the sarin munitions were delivered by Syrian planes from the Shayrat airbase. And yet it was on that shaky basis that an act of armed aggression was conducted against sovereign Syria on 7 April.
We have repeatedly said that the OPCW’s investigation could have been much more objective if the fact-finding mission’s team had been put together on a wide geographical basis in order to fulfil its mission. Meanwhile, it is a fact that its key positions were held by representatives of countries involved in the Syrian conflict and hostile to Damascus. In that regard, it was impossible to ignore the fact that, right before today’s Council meeting, the fact-finding mission issued a report on the alleged chemical incident in Al-Ltamenah on 30 March, based, incidentally, on its by now familiar remote procedures. That is a striking coincidence, especially considering that almost nothing has been heard about the incident for the past six months. That immediately gives rise to a number of legitimate questions as to who provided the samples and when; where and by whom they were taken; how their preservation was assured during this entire time; whether the authorities in Damascus were asked for information; and so on. In the circumstances, one can only think that the story was intentionally timed to coincide with today’s meeting.
The specialists of the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) for investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria did not visit Khan Shaykhun either. The decision was taken by the Mechanism’s Leadership Panel, which considered it unnecessary. However, the request to the Department of Safety and Security was still submitted, just in case — in October, six months after the incident occurred. After much consideration, the JIM’s visit to Al-Shayrat air base did eventually take place. But it is not clear that this added any value, since the team of experts had not been asked to sample for sarin traces. They were prepared to do it and had the necessary technical and human resources, but did not because they had not been given the go-ahead by the leadership. And yet finding out if sarin had been stored at the airbase was crucial to establishing who was to blame and was therefore the direct responsibility of the JIM.
The result of this series of gross errors by the investigative mechanisms is that the JIM’s report of 26 October and its conclusions (see S/2017/904, annex) cannot stand up to any serious criticism. It is no accident that the text, including the section analysing what happened in Khan Shaykun, is full of locutions such as “possibly”, “probably”, “suggests” and “most likely”. I would like to ask Mr. Mulet if he really thinks such terminology is acceptable in a report on such a serious matter. Would it not have been better to inform the Council honestly that the JIM was not in a position to conduct a fully fledged investigation? The relevant Russian entities did a thorough scientific and technical analysis of the report and held an open briefing on 2 November to discuss the results. We urge everyone to familiarize themselves with the briefing. Its main findings are as follows.
The evidence for blaming the Syrian Arab Republic is based on a version that states that an aerial bomb containing sarin was dropped from a military aircraft flying near Khan Shaykhun, on an analysis of the crater created by the bomb’s explosion and on a determination of the presence of sarin’s chemical composition at the scene. However, the Mechanism’s conclusions are untenable, since the report fails to provide convincing evidence of the means of delivery, the type of munitions used and the method of sarin dispersal.
Turning to the results of the technical analysis based on our thorough examination, we find that according to the JIM’s tracking — provided by the United States-led coalition — of the Syrian Air Force Su-22, the route was in fact to the side of and parallel to Khan Shaykhun. No manoeuvres by the plane were observed. In those circumstances, based on the JIM version of events, the dropping of the bomb could not have occurred along the aircraft’s flight path — since non-guided munitions can be aimed only when the aircraft is precisely on course for its target — but sideways on, at almost a 90-degree angle.
I would like to ask Mr. Mulet why the Mechanism concluded that this was technically possible. If it was in fact carried out — although nothing was observed on the radar — then, going on the radius of the turn and the approach to the target, the Su-22 would have inevitably had to fly over the residential area, with an increased thrust and significant noise. But according to the JIM report, not one of the witnesses saw a military aircraft directly over the town. Our Russian experts have shown, using calculations and graphs, that an air strike on Khan Shaykhun was not technically possible. Why did the JIM not consult Russia, given that the aircraft is manufactured in our country? Then all these fantasies about the Su-22’s flight path would have vanished on their own.
The problem is that from the very beginning, the JIM leadership has looked at the aerial bomb version of the Khan Shaykhun events as the basic account, if not the only one. Anything that did not fit into it has been discarded, and the Mechanism has ignored the version about how the incident might have been staged, saying that nobody saw anyone preparing a ground-level detonation of munitions. How can one take that kind of reasoning seriously within the framework of such a serious investigative process? Who on earth would put together such a thing in front of anyone?
Based on information from social networks, the fact-finding mission received munition fragments supposedly found in the crater. I would like to ask Mr. Mulet if the JIM has analysed the metal fragments to determine the type of steel and whether it could be used to manufacture warheads. It is well known that carbon steel is used everywhere to make these kinds of munitions. If that was the case, why is the data not in the report? And if not, how can it be unequivocally concluded that there was a chemical bomb? There is a crumpled piece of pipe in the crater visible in the photographs. What, in the JIM’s opinion, is it made of and what does it have to do with an aerial bomb?
Let us consider the crater. If a chemical bomb with binary sarin had been dropped, there would unquestionably have to have been found, in or near it, the mixer that synthesizes the two components that produce sarin, as well as pieces of the tail unit. Nothing like that was found. I would like to ask Mr. Mulet why the crater has no signs of the entry channel that the impact of an aerial bomb always produces. How can one conclude that there was an aerial bomb when the crater’s shape is rectangular rather than elliptical? Every textbook on explosions says that a crater like that is characteristic of an explosion from a horizontal, ground-based position. That also corresponds to the distribution of the burn marks on the surface of the asphalt. The edges of the crater were not turned outwards and there were no traces of displaced soil, which shows that the munition was sitting on the asphalt at the moment it exploded. Incidentally, the crater was paved over soon after the incident, which looks very like destruction of evidence.
As part of its work, the JIM commissioned a special laboratory analysis, which detected an impurity that is left behind after the formation of Syrian binary sarin from the precursor methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF). We would like to ask Mr. Mulet what this component’s concentration was and at what stages, and whether there was any verification of the likelihood of this micro-impurity’s being present in DF in any other processes where DF is used as a basic component for producing sarin. We believe that the impurities found in the samples should not be considered as unique markers solely for Syrian binary technology for producing sarin. It is also possible that the DF and sarin were deliberately synthesized following the known Syrian recipe. The chemicals could have been produced anywhere in order to deliberately compromise the Syrian authorities, and as far as we know that version of events was never considered. Nor has the possibility that homemade sarin was used in Khan Shaykhun been explored, although there could be evidence of that in substance samples. Does Mr. Mulet really believe that no one besides the Syrians is capable of producing sarin based on a specific known formula established through analysis? And if he does, why?
I would like to ask Mr. Mulet if the JIM conducted a chemical analysis of the samples taken from the crater with a view to detecting and identifying traces of the explosive that released the sarin. If not, why? After all, that would be the most logical way to determine the type of munitions and explosion and the method used to disperse the sarin.
What has been noticeable is the visual materials produced immediately after the chemical incident, in which people are seen milling around the crater without special protective equipment. There are representatives of the White Helmets using respirators and cotton gloves, which provide no protection from the effects of sarin, and they seem to be feeling fine. That is proof that there was no sarin in the crater, since if a chemical bomb had gone off it would have produced a lethal concentration of the poison around the crater. There is reason to believe that there was a munitions explosion on the ground, after which the White Helmets shot the well-known video and only after that was the sarin released into the crater. And yet the White Helmets announced the possible use of chemical weapons even before the Syrian planes took off from Shayrat airbase.
I would like to ask Mr. Mulet if the JIM verified the information that the White Helmets had. Why was almost no attention paid to that fact during the preparation of the Mechanism’s report? The report also passes over one very important circumstance. In April, in the Security Council, the United States Permanent Representative showed photographs of Syrian children who had supposedly died from sarin poisoning. The pupils of the children in the pictures are significantly dilated, whereas if they had been suffering from the effects of sarin, their pupils would have shrunk to the size of a pinhead. We asked the fact-finding mission and the JIM to explain that inconsistency, but they avoided the issue. The report also notes that in 57 of 247 cases, the victims had arrived at hospitals before the incident actually occurred. That is one in four of the supposed patients, which excludes the possibility of carelessness in filling out the documents in the ensuing commotion. The Mechanism, however, decided to ignore that glaring discrepancy, forcing the available evidence into the Procrustean bed of the single, untenable aerial-bomb version. I would like to ask Mr. Mulet if 57 people is not rather too many to write off as poor record-keeping.
We are not undermining the authority of the JIM, simply proceeding according to facts and logic based on our thorough scientific and technical analysis of the report. We firmly believe that the Mechanism, vested with such a major responsibility, cannot continue to work in this way. If comprehensive changes are not made, it will remain a tool used solely to settle accounts with the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic. That is the impression that is being given, and that is unacceptable. In extending the mandate of the JIM, we want to enhance its effectiveness and bring it in line with the high standards of the Chemical Weapons Convention. That is what our draft resolution aims to do, and we hope that our colleagues in the Security Council will approach that draft from a constructive, non-politicized perspective.
Even as some continue to try to find these imaginary chemical weapons in Damascus, the region is seeing an increasing threat of chemical terrorism. Owing to the not very constructive position taken certain countries, it has been difficult to develop an appropriate response, despite the draft resolution that we put forward, together with China. The JIM has not done anything about this, even though anti-terrorist efforts are one of its main tasks under the mandate given it by the Security Council last year. The issue of chemicals continues to be used to increase tensions around Syria; ultimately, chemical terrorism could lead to a real conflagration that would have repercussions even beyond the Middle East.
In conclusion, I want to say that when, together with our American colleagues, we created the Joint Investigative Mechanism, we had in mind the goal of closing a large gap in international tools used to address such issues as investigating cases of chemical terrorism, and we considered the Mechanism as a preventive mechanism aimed at deterrence. Unfortunately, we have not been able to achieve that. I think that what Mr. Mulet said today would strike even people with the wildest imaginations:
“With respect to the responsibility of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Mechanism did not identify specific actors within the Government and institutions of the Syrian Arab Republic. The nature and logistics of the operation would involve a range of actors from different areas”.
In other words, it stated in its report that the responsibility of the Syrian Arab Republic had not been determined, within either the Government or its various institutionss, and that the character and the logistics of the operation might have involved a whole range of players from various areas. What kind of evidence is this? And then it wrote that the Syrian Arab Republic — the entire State — was responsible.
We need to draw lessons from history. In its current form, the Mechanism represents a serious step backward, even compared to the efforts of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq, because in that case Mr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei clearly based their work on verifiable facts. They would not have dared to base it on assumptions such as those that I have just quoted from Mr. Mulet’s own statement.
Once again, I want to say that the Russian draft resolution is aimed at correcting these errors and systemic problems.