A report by the French intelligence services containing France’s conclusions about the alleged use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun in Idlib Province, Syria, has been released in Paris. France is the third country after Turkey and Britain to have conducted a probe into the chemical attack. The impression is that the above countries either do not trust the OPCW or are trying to steer its investigation in a particular direction.
Even the initial analysis of the five-page French document has raised quite a few questions. First, it begs the question as to the circumstances under which France has obtained samples that it claims were taken directly at the scene of the incident. If they were taken by the French intelligence services themselves, it means they have free access to an area controlled, according to the report, by the armed groups of Syrian opposition forces linked to al-Qaeda. If the samples were obtained from a different site located, for example, on the territory of one of Syria’s neighbours, the credibility of the analysis carried out by France would immediately be called into question.
It should be said again that in keeping with the international rules, the integrity of samples taken for analysis must be ensured all the way from the scene of an incident to the laboratory.
In a bid to prove that sarin gas that was allegedly used in Khan Shaykhun was produced in Syria, the contributors to the report refer to the sarin gas formulation, saying it points to the use of the techniques developed in Syrian laboratories. It remains unclear why they are so confident since Syria has never possessed sarin gas as a finished product – they had only the precursor ingredients for this gas, the entire arsenal of which was taken out of Syria in 2014. The mobile installations that could be used to synthesise sarin have been destroyed and this has also been confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The only evidence produced by the report’s authors is the alleged similarity between the results of the analysis that has recently been carried out and those obtained by France in 2013 when it tested samples taken at the site of another incident that was also associated with the use of sarin gas. However, this argument looks inconclusive because in 2013 the UN mission failed to either independently confirm the information contained in the French report about the incident in Saraqeb or check on compliance with the procedure for ensuring the integrity of evidence, including during the transportation of the samples taken at the scene of the incident. The only material evidence which the contributors to the report refer to is a hand-grenade filled, judging by the photograph, with sarin gas, which was allegedly dropped from a Syrian helicopter. Using a grenade to deliver sarin gas is something altogether new and, as far as we know, without precedent in the history of chemical weapons. To put it mildly, this exotic chemical piece of ammunition is not safe for those who use it.
In short, there are many obvious discrepancies which testify to the poor quality of the investigation. The only real possibility of establishing the truth would be to send the OPCW fact-finding mission to Khan Shaykhun and the Shayrat Airbase, where sarin gas that has been used in Khan Shaykhun was allegedly stored, to conduct a field investigation, using all the procedures provided for in the Chemical Weapons Convention and this mission’s mandate. It is also important that the make-up of the mission fully complies with Paragraph 8 of the mandate, under which the geographical basis for forming groups of experts should be as representative as possible. Only in this case, all the countries will be able to give credence to the conclusions of the international probe.
This was the aim of the draft proposal submitted recently by Russia and Iran at a special session of the OPCW Executive Committee. Regretfully, it has been vetoed primarily by Western countries, including France, which has carried out its own investigation – as an alternative to an unbiased international probe – and, frankly speaking, in terms of its professionalism, it was not perfect.
We are calling again to abandon the dishonourable political games involving the Syrian chemical track record and take the steps which Russia has been insisting on for three weeks now, that is, to send a group of specialists directly to Khan Shaykhun and the Shayrat Airbase which will include representatives of countries not blinded by the hatred of the legitimate Syrian Government.