The mandate of an international expert panel investigating use of chemical weapons in Syria, known as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), has expired. JIM was established by the United Nations Security Council, unanimously, in 2015 to identify “to the greatest extent feasible” individuals, entities, groups or governments perpetrating, organizing, sponsoring or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons in Syria. With its mandate about to come to an end if not renewed by another Security Council resolution, Russia killed it with two vetoes late last week. That brings to 11 the number of times that Russia has moved to block a Security Council resolution dealing with Syria since the conflict broke out there six years ago.
The original draft resolution submitted by the United States would have extended the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s mandate by a year and affirmed the methodological and evidentiary standards employed in JIM’s investigations. Russia would have none of that, however. It sought to discredit the JIM panel after it released its report on October 26, 2017 finding that the Syrian regime had been responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on April 4, 2017. The panel had also found that ISIS was responsible for the use of sulfur mustard at Umm Hawsh in September 2016. In order to protect its ally in the future against anything that smacked of accountability for its brutality, Russia vetoed the U.S. draft resolution.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley was unsparing in her criticism of Russia’s obstructionism following Russia’s veto of the U.S.-sponsored draft resolution. “Russia has issued vetoes before to prevent Council action and accountability in Syria,” Ambassador Haley said. “Russia has invented reasons not to support a mechanism it helped create because it did not like its scientific conclusions. Russia has acted to obstruct these investigations many times. But today, it strikes a deep blow. Russia has killed the Joint Investigative Mechanism, which has overwhelming support of this Council. And by eliminating our ability to identify the attackers, Russia has undermined our ability to deter future attacks. Assad and ISIS will no longer be on notice for the use of chemical weapons by Russia’s actions today. The message to anyone listening is clear: in effect, Russia accepts the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
Ambassador Haley warned that inaction by the Security Council would not protect the Syrian regime from accountability for its chemical attacks. Referring to the missile strikes launched by the Trump administration last April in reprisal for the Syrian regime’s chemical attack at that time, Ambassador Haley said, “Regardless of what its Russian protectors do here in the Security Council, the Assad regime should be on clear notice: the United States does not accept Syria’s use of chemical weapons. As we did in April, we will do it again if we must. We will defend the international standard against chemical weapons use. It would be wise for the Assad regime to heed this warning.”
After the defeat of an alternative draft resolution submitted by Bolivia based on Russia’s text, which would have also extended JIM’s mandate for a year but with strings attached significantly undermining JIM’s independence, Japan proposed a simple compromise. Japan submitted a draft resolution extending JIM’s mandate for 30 days without any endorsement or criticism of the JIM report or its methods. Within that time, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the UN Secretary General would be asked to make a recommendation on a plan for JIM to continue operating. Russia vetoed that draft as well.
“As we have long suspected, Russia does not now and has never had any intention of making this time productive for this Council and the international community,” said Ambassador Nikki Haley in her remarks to the Security Council following Russia’s veto of Japan’s proposal. “Russia’s veto – its second in 24 hours – shows us that Russia has no interest in finding common ground with the rest of this Council to save the JIM. Russia will not agree to any mechanism that might shine a spotlight on the use of chemical weapons by its ally, the Syrian regime. It’s as simple and shameful as that.”
For its part, Russia tried to justify its willingness to end the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s mandate based on what it said was the panel’s failure to conduct onsite inspections and to take samples at Khan Shaykhun. Instead, Russia complained, JIM relied on purportedly unreliable evidence, such as the word of allegedly biased witnesses. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily A. Nebenzia claimed that the U.S. draft resolution his country vetoed merely sought to entrench JIM’s flaws. The Russian ambassador tried to tie the U.S. resolution expressing support for JIM’s work to the U.S.-initiated Iraq war in 2003, which he said had been sold on false evidence presented by the United States. “Will this geopolitical laboratory ever be shut down?” he asked.
Ambassador Haley countered that Russia only complained about JIM’s methods when Syria was found at fault. It appeared to have no problems with its findings regarding the ISIS sulfur mustard attack, even though the methodologies used to investigate both cases were quite similar. “If you pay attention, you will notice that the Russians think the JIM works great when it finds ISIS at fault for chemical weapons,” Ambassador Haley said. “But when it is one of their friends who is the perpetrator, the problem is suddenly the JIM, not their friend who committed the crime.”
The Joint Investigative Mechanism panel explained in its October 26th report why it had not conducted onsite inspections. It said that with respect to Khan Shaykhun, “the integrity of the scene had been compromised” because “the crater from which the sarin emanated had been disturbed after the incident and subsequently filled with concrete.” Moreover, the report stated, “the high security risk of a site visit to Khan Shaykhun, which is currently in a situation of armed conflict and under the control of a listed terrorist organization (Nusrah Front), outweighed the possible benefits for the investigation.” The panel had conducted interviews with multiple victims and witnesses, including, in the case of Khan Shaykhun, residents, personnel from Sha‘irat airbase, government officials, doctors who had treated victims, rescue personnel and commanders of non-state armed groups. The panel also relied on satellite imagery taken both before and after the incident. It used similar methods of investigation regarding the Umm Hawsh attack, which it attributed to ISIS.
The JIM panel pointed to its use of internationally recognized forensic institutes and laboratories, accredited in accordance with the International Organization for Standardization. In the case of Khan Shaykhun, “expert analysis was provided with respect to the nature of the plumes resulting from explosions; the characteristics of the crater and their likely cause; the remnants of the munitions; the dispersion of sarin; the explosives used and their delivery methods; and the medical effects and their treatment.” The panel found that the sarin used in the attack had most likely been made with a precursor from the Syrian regime’s original stock. The crater from which the sarin emanated was caused by the impact of an aerial bomb. An aircraft of the Syrian regime was in the immediate vicinity of Khan Shaykhun at the time that an aircraft dropped munitions over the site.
Based on all the evidence JIM had collected and subjected to thorough forensic and laboratory analysis, JIM stated it was “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.”
The Joint Investigative Mechanism may not be perfect, but it provides the best chance at objective scientific analysis of available evidence following chemical attacks that anyone has managed to come up with. Inner City Press reports another proposal is being considered that would keep JIM alive as is until the end of the UN’s current budget cycle, which is presumably at the close of this year. So far, Russia has been playing games with innocent lives by undermining the ability to get at the truth regarding who is responsible for unleashing horrendous chemical attacks in Syria. Given its track record, Russia would be likely to do so again if given another opportunity at the Security Council.