Syria denies using chemical weapons in civil war

THE HAGUE, The Netherlands – Syria on Monday, November 30, denied ever using chemical weapons in its four-year-old civil war, telling a global watchdog it was cooperating fully with the destruction of its toxic stockpile.

Damascus's rebuttal comes amid growing accusations it is not being transparent with the world's chemical watchdog and UN efforts are stepped up to track down the perpetrators of deadly chlorine gas attacks in the war-torn country last year.

"We wish here to state categorically that we have never used chlorine or any other toxic chemicals during any incidents or any other operations in the Syrian Arab Republic since the beginning of the crisis and up to this very day," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Moqdad told the annual meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Damascus rejected "the false accusations against Syria with respect to its supposed use of chlorine as a weapon in military operations," he added, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter.

The accusations "only serve political agendas, which also aim at diverting our successes in eliminating our chemical weapons," Moqdad said.

'Many uncertainties'

But Western countries including the European Union (EU), the United States and Canada have lambasted Syria, raising doubts whether President Bashar al-Assad's regime is truly committed to ridding the country of all chemical arms.

There are "many uncertainties regarding the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons program, notably the gaps and contradictions contained in Syria's declarations," EU representative Jacek Bylica told the meeting, attended by delegates from the OPCW's 192 states.

"These uncertainties lead to doubts as to compliance by Syria with its obligations under the Convention," Bylica told the opening of the five-day assembly in The Hague.

This "makes it impossible to have confidence that its chemical weapons programme has been irreversibly dismantled," Bylica said.

Last week the OPCW itself voiced "grave concern" at the continued use of toxic arms in Syria, despite the regime's ratification of the UN Convention banning chemical weapons.

The OPCW investigations did not directly blame any of the parties in the four-year civil war, aimed at ousting Assad and in which civil groups say more than 250,000 people have been killed.

But a US representative to the OPCW, Rafael Foley, told a closed-door meeting: "The sad reality is that chemical weapons' use is becoming routine in the Syrian civil war."

He charged there was only "one conclusion" from the expert reports that "the Syrian regime has continued to use chemical weapons on its own people."

Mustard gas attack

Accusations have also mounted that extremists with the Islamic State group, which has captured a swathe of territory in both Syria and Iraq, have resorted to such tactics.

The OPCW confirmed earlier in November with "utmost confidence" that mustard gas was used in Syria in August during fighting between rebels and jihadists, and "likely" killed a child.

OPCW experts also concluded that chlorine gas was likely used in an attack in Idlib province in March.

OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu said a joint UN task team, approved by the Security Council in August to probe chlorine attacks in Syrian villages last year, was up and running in New York and in The Hague "with plans to set up in Damascus."

The panel, which comprises 24 experts, is expected to produce its first report to the Security Council in February, Uzumcu said.

The watchdog's top official told Monday's meeting "significant progress" had been made in destroying Syria's declared chemical weapons stockpile.

Under a deal hammered out in 2013 between Russia and the United States following a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus in which hundreds died, the regime joined the UN Convention against chemical weapons and pledged to hand over all such arms to the OPCW for destruction.

Some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons were handed over by Syria, including mustard and sarin gas.

The last of the stockpile will be destroyed in the United States by the end of the year, Uzumcu said. –