Remarks by Russia’s Permanent Representative at the OPCW, Ambassador Alexander Shulgin, at the 54th Meeting of the OPCW Executive Council, The Hague, April 13, 2017
Being a responsible party to the CWC, the Russian Federation unconditionally condemns the use of chemical weapons by anyone anywhere. We strongly deny any accusations against Russia that it acted as an enabler in the tragic events in Syria or was even complicit in the perpetration of any crime using chemical weapons. This is a blatant falsehood.
The message echoed at this meeting by a number of delegations that Russia is becoming increasingly isolated on the international stage and stands on its own following the April 12, 2017 vote in the UN Security Council is totally groundless. This is wishful thinking. In real life, Russia has adopted an inclusive and honest position that is clear for anyone acting in good faith. Russia could not accept the draft resolution during yesterday’s vote at the UN Security Council.
In fact, the Western troika submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council that was biased, lacked evidence and also pointed a finger at Syria. It was only formally devoted to investigating the Idlib incident, since it even lacked a provision on the need to work on the ground. Against this backdrop, Russia had no other option but to veto the document. No one should be misled about why Russia used its veto right in the UN Security Council.
I would also like to respond to what US Ambassador Kenneth Ward said about Russia allegedly making false claims about the OPCW, pretending that its executive made statements they had not. That was a very strange thing to hear, to say the least. Let me remind you of a quote from the report of the 76th Session of the OPCW Executive Council, in which the Council noted “the completed elimination by 23 June 2014, i.e. in the first half of 2014 as envisaged in EC-M-33/DEC.1 (dated 27 September 2013), of all declared chemical weapons material and equipment from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic, despite uniquely challenging conditions.” May I ask you what this means, if not a confirmation by the OPCW that the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria was completed? So my advice for the US Ambassador would be to pay more attention to official OPCW documents. As for the clarification made to the initial declaration by Syria, everyone is aware of the challenging conditions in which it was prepared. It had to be submitted on very short notice and in the midst of a military conflict. It is obvious that the Syrians will have to clarify some points. There is nothing unusual about this, and other states that possess chemical weapons, including the US, have adjusted their initial declarations as well.
We must bitterly note that there are delegations trying to turn today's meeting of the Executive Council into some sort of a rigged trial where the perpetrators are already known, are sitting in the dock and are in the process of being sentenced. Has the investigation been completed already? Where is the evidence incriminating the Syrians? We are told that US intelligence has irrefutable evidence, so there is no need for an investigation. However, we are well aware of the value of the US intelligence. I will get back to that a little later.
Our Turkish colleague has reported on the findings of the doctors of his country, who, he said, conducted an autopsy, took samples and ascertained that those people died from sarin. What is this laboratory where the Turkish experts did their tests? Is it certified by the OPCW? How were the samples taken? What was the sequence of steps, and were they in line with the methodology approved by the OPCW? I am asking all these questions because when our military found traces of chemical weapons in Syria and submitted these materials to The Hague, they made them bend over backwards demanding to provide clarifications regarding compliance with the "chain of custody." We asked lots of questions during videoconferences and during a special meeting on the sidelines of the last session of the Executive Board. What's next? Three months have passed, and the experts of the OPCW Fact Finding Mission are still thinking, being unable to make up their minds with regard to the materials collected by the Russian military. Just think about it: three months and no results. While here, in a matter of three short days, the Turkish doctors came up with their conclusions. What mind-boggling efficiency! Why should we trust them as Holy Gospel? Why is the Technical Secretariat keeping silent? It is regrettable that such, in fact, crude information is willingly replicated and used in bad faith by a number of delegations as we can see from the remarks of the distinguished British ambassador.
We are disappointed by the representatives of a number of Western countries praising the US missile strike on Syria as supposedly fair and timely from the point of view of preventing further chemical attacks by the Syrian government. We think differently. We believe this is an outrageous act of aggression perpetrated by the United States against a sovereign Syria, which represents a gross violation of all conceivable and inconceivable norms of international law. The latter circumstance is important. There are delegations from some countries in this audience, which, as we know, brag about their adherence to international law. I believe they themselves become uncomfortable when they are forced – due to the falsely understood NATO-EU solidarity – to associate themselves with these unseemly acts by Washington. As for the supposedly deterrent effect of the US missile strike in terms of preventing further use of chemical weapons in Syria, we would like to warn our partners against becoming euphoric. ISIS, al-Nusra and their ilk were the first to rejoice over this US military move. Their spirits were raised, realising that they now have more opportunities for success on the "battlefield," with the Syrian army – a recognised effective tool for combating international terrorism in Syria – becoming weaker. There’s one more thing that our Western partners do not want to focus on. After all, it is a well-known fact that terrorists in Syria and Iraq have resources and production facilities for manufacturing not only toxic chemical agents, but also full-blown chemical munitions. Have the US military not experienced artillery or mortar shelling using "chemistry" somewhere on their base in Iraq? I believe such reports were released a few weeks ago.
We are, of course, alarmed by the destructive stance adopted by the US delegation at the Executive Council’s meeting. Today’s statements by esteemed US Permanent Representative to the OPCW Kenneth Ward suggest that the US is trying to manipulate our Organisation for its own self-serving ends. And their associates from the delegations of western nations are assisting in this, whether wittingly or not. The logical explanation for the line adopted by the USA suggests itself: its priority in the OPCW is demonising the legitimate Syrian government over Syrian “chemicals” in order to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad, whom they oppose. The USA clearly has substantial experience in such matters, resulting in untold disasters in a number of nations. We don’t have to look hard for examples: the former Yugoslavia, Libya, Iraq. Now they have chosen Syria as their target. However, this is a short-sighted policy that backfires on the USA itself and all those who mimic their cowboy approach to solving international problems. As they say: sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. Could Americans have ever imagined that those Libyans whom they helped to overthrow Gaddafi would subsequently brutally murder their own ambassador and other personnel at the US Consulate General in Benghazi? How about our French friends who were preaching morality to us today? We remember they used to be proud, to the point of boasting, of the fact that they supplied weapons to anti-Gaddafi forces in violation of a UNSC resolution. The then President of France Nicolas Sarkozy, who came to Libya shortly after the summary execution of Gaddafi, was deeply moved by the banners in the Libyan capital reading “Thank You, France, For Our Freedom!” (just like in the Soviet times when young schoolchildren used to say “Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!”). But our French friends’ joy must have turned to despair when they it came time to pay in their own blood. The weapons they had supplied to Libyan rebels were used to shoot at French troops in Mali. It appears the weapons leaked out of Libya into Mali and other crisis spots in the region, thus fuelling terrorism.
The OPCW should not become hostage to indecent political games. The international community should have learned from the sad experience when former US Secretary of State Colin Powell brandished, from the UN tribune, a test tube filled with a white powder, obtained by American intelligence, which he claimed contained anthrax strains taken from Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. In reality, the test tube contained what was most likely tooth powder. This essentially became the pretext used to launch the American venture in Iraq, which ended with the destruction of the Iraqi statehood and the emergence of ISIS, the backbone of which was made up of former Iraqi armed forces officers.
I would also recommend the esteemed British representative to somewhat moderate his military ardour. It would be worth it for him to recall the recent regrets expressed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a commission of enquiry established by the British themselves revealed that he deliberately lied, thus leading Britain into taking part in the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq. Mr Blair, it seems, even apologised to the families and friends of British “Tommies” killed in Iraq. Several hundred still very young men. Will Mr Blair and the hawks that now rule the roost on the banks of the Thames apologise to the Iraqi people, who have lost not hundreds, but tens of thousands of lives as a result of the planned Anglo-Saxon invasion carried out under false pretences?
Honestly speaking, today we were seeking a technical discussion befitting the OPCW, an essentially technical organisation in its own right. But thanks to our western colleagues’ efforts, emotions are running high. Let us put aside the rhetoric for a while and try to reason more or less rationally. It is clear that Damascus had no need to use chemical weapons in Idlib, even if, purely hypothetically, it had them. But this was clearly a temptation for the radical opposition. And it seems someone was eager to hamper the political process in Geneva and wreck the talks in Astana, where Russia, Turkey and Iran are cooperating as intermediaries to ensure compliance with the ceasefire and creating the preconditions for a durable settlement of the Syrian crisis as a whole. When you think about it, the current developments are suspiciously reminiscent of the events of autumn 2013. As is common knowledge, the then US President Barack Obama declared that there was a “red line” – the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian forces – that would trigger US military intervention. Some US allies were longing to “get engaged.” They were revving bomber engines and weighing anchors of warships. The only thing lacking was the crossing of the notorious “red line,” which would inevitably entail, as per Mr Obama’s promise, an American attack. And soon after, quite opportunely, there was a tragedy in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Certain US allies were just rapturous: big brother is going to join the fray shortly and show what they are made of, if at a more modest level, but still as a combatant against the Syrian tyranny, while also scoring domestic political points. But instead it was an epic fail. Russia and the United States reached an agreement on Syria’s chemical disarmament, which was quite successful, as certified by our Organisation.
So what could have happened at Khan Shaykhun? You could presume that the Syrian Air Force actually bombed an underground factory producing chemical warfare agents. Another scenario is that this is a provocation by the terrorists themselves. Harrowing footage of dying children does not, however, relieve us of the need to think about why volunteers of the notorious "white helmets" rendering first aid to the victims would do so without wearing individual means of protection. But if, as the Turkish representative told us today, sarin, a deadly volatile toxic agent, was actually used there, then a gauze bandage would not do the job. It is unfortunate that we didn’t have an opportunity to listen to the full technical briefing by the OPCW Technical Secretariat that we requested. So, we will have to rely on the opinion of a Swedish expert who was perplexed when he saw the same images as the entire world. In them, volunteers remain in direct contact with the victims, they press children who are at the point of death to their chests and run off with them someplace. Is anyone aware of the volunteers being affected by sarin? Or, are they all perfectly healthy and continue, like good samaritans, to do their charitable work? If not, then could all this have been staged? The "white helmets" have become really good at that. I myself saw a YouTube video showing a blood-covered Syrian, seemingly unconscious, lying on the ground somewhere in Aleppo. Two volunteers wearing white helmets shift around him providing first aid, or something like it. In any case, they were making passes with their hands. All of a sudden, this supposedly gravely wounded man sits up on the ground – and does so with ease – and says in a disgruntled voice: "Stop messing around, let's start shooting." I’m sure I’m not the only person who saw this footage. So, let's, at least, be mindful of this scenario.
Now, with regard to reproaches, in particular, on behalf of the Canadian ambassador to the effect that we are devaluing the importance of the work done by the Fact-Finding Mission. Let's look into that calmly. We know that our Syrian colleagues have serious complaints about the work of the mission. Under the mandate defined for this mission, its membership should be approved by the Syrian government, and it should be balanced. For some time, these provisions were observed somewhat, but then the mission was split into two groups. One, led by Steven Wallis from Britain, works in contact with the Syrian government, while the other one, headed by his fellow countryman Leonard Phillips, deals with the claims filed by the Syrian armed opposition. This latter group is working completely non-transparently. Its membership is classified, and no one knows where it goes or how it operates. They are allegedly using the same methodology as Steven Wallis’ group, but they are clearly working mostly remotely, relying on the internet and the fabrications provided by Syrian opposition NGOs, and never go to Syria. At least, we are not aware of a single such trip.
What is this, if not a departure from the originally agreed-upon FFM mandate? So let us honestly ask ourselves whether such a mission, in particular, the group led by Leonard Phillips, can present credible findings by an investigation. Don’t get us wrong: we are not in favour of closing the mission as such. For God's sake, let it continue to work. But we must make sure that its membership is based on the principle of equitable geographical representation enshrined in the UN Charter. Is that too much to ask? A whim on our part? Of course not. This is normal UN practice, which must be brought here, in the OPCW. Let's also include authoritative international experts from various countries, in particular from the permanent member states of the UN Security Council, in the mission, as suggested in a letter by First Deputy Foreign Minister of Syria Faisal Mekdad to Director- General Ahmet Uzumcu.
Why do we believe this is relevant? Look at what is happening now. It has been nine days since the alleged use of chemical weapons in Idlib. The Syrians have duly notified the OPCW. How does it respond, what does the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) do? It has been suggested to us that it is busy collecting primary information and waiting for the go-ahead from the field-specific UN security department authorising a trip to Khan-Shaykhun. But even with a discount on security, we still have to say that the FFM is, if not staying idle, then simply going through the motions.
Taking this into consideration, together with our Iranian colleagues, we believed it was necessary to bring for consideration by the Executive Council a draft decision making the Technical Secretariat focus on building an international mission of experts, which, in addition to the FFM staff chosen in accordance with the UN principle of equitable geographical representation, could include national experts from a number of countries, such as Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France, Iran, Sweden, Spain, and Switzerland, to name a few. Speaking about specific individuals, one could mention figures who are well-known at the OPCW and enjoy well-deserved authority such as Stefan Mogl of Switzerland, Ralf Trapp of Germany, Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, and Chen Tan of China. We see the goal of such a mission in investigating - I ask the audience to keep this in mind - how the chemical weapons were brought to Khan-Shaykhun and used there, if this indeed took place. At the same time, it must check the allegations of the Americans (which are also being discussed by their colleagues) about the use of the Syrian air base Shayrat to store chemical weapons and organising combat sorties with toxic bombs. After all, if chemical weapons were stored there, then it certainly is a violation of the CWC. Can the OPCW leave this incident without an investigation? Is it not necessary to send inspectors there urgently, so that they can make sure whether the chemical weapons was used there or not? Next. They say that sarin is a volatile substance, and we will not find any traces of it 10 days later. I'm certainly not a chemist. But considering how the other OPCW mission is working to check the initial Syrian declaration – taking scrapings from the walls of the ventilation shafts, taking surface wipe sampling of equipment parts, and taking soil samples and, many years after the fact, managing to find traces of chemical activities, – I believe that the Technical Secretariat experts, especially with the assistance of the authoritative international experts, will be able to uncover the truth.
In order to successfully conduct an investigation, the international mission of experts - we would like to emphasise this - must go directly to the sites, work strictly according to the methodology approved by the OPCW with an emphasis on collecting material evidence, rather than relying solely on speculation from the internet and stories told by alleged witnesses interviewed in a country that neighbours on Syria.
Now, with regard to mission-related safety issues. Frankly, we see no obstacles to an early start of the investigation in view of the willingness of the Syrian government to provide unfettered and safe access for the OPCW experts to Shayrat Air Base. In turn, the states that have influence over the armed Syrian opposition should help ensure an earliest possible trip to Khan-Shaykhun. As far as we understand, a statement by Coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian Opposition Riyad Hijab about his willingness to assist in carrying out an international investigation, which seems to imply guarantees of a safe visit to the site of the incident, could be helpful.
After what happened in Idlib and the gross violation of international law by the United States, which resulted in aggression against a sovereign Syria, further delay is impossible. With this in mind, we would like to hope for the adoption of the submitted Executive Council resolution, so that the mission of international experts proposed by us and the Iranians can begin its work in Syria no later than April 22.
We ask the Technical Secretariat to disseminate, in due course, the text of the draft decision put forward by us and the Iranians. We would be grateful to the member states for their ideas regarding this project. We are ready to take into account all constructive considerations, to demonstrate the necessary flexibility and to work tirelessly to clarify the circumstances of the Idlib incident. What we cannot agree with is delays in starting a full-fledged investigation. We heard the proposal by distinguished US Ambassador Kenneth Ward to take a three-week break and then see if we can get together, if the FFM report is ready by that time, which actually remains to be seen. Such a suggestion by the distinguished US ambassador leads us to sad thoughts as to whether our partners, primarily the United States, but also those who spoke today in a well-coordinated ensemble with them, passionately condemning Syria and Russia, for that matter, are willing to conduct a comprehensive investigation. It is hard to shake the feeling that they, in fact, are not.
In this regard, I am compelled to share with my colleagues the following alarming observation: over the past three years, the Russian Federation has repeatedly raised the issue in New York of the UN Security Council, in some way (through the adoption of a resolution or at least a statement by its chair), responding to the growing incidence of chemical terrorism in Syria and Iraq. Everyone can see such cases. The threat of using chemical substances by terrorists is great not only in the region, but in other parts of the world as well, including Europe. To our great regret, every time, our American partners and their associates have cut such attempts short. There have been many instances, clearly more than eight, when Russia had no choice but to use the right of veto to turn down the proposals to adopt unjust UN Security Council resolutions on the situation in Syria.
Therefore, I would like to ask the delegations to take the situation seriously. We must act quickly. The reputation of the OPCW is at stake. It deservedly received the Nobel Peace Prize, and now is the time when our organisation must weigh in and rise to the occasion.
Please have this statement circulated as an official document of the 54th extraordinary meeting of the Executive Council.
I apologise for having exceeded the time limit. But we have been sitting here for about seven hours now. There has been a large number of speakers, some of whom have come hard on Syria and our country. So, I had to make numerous additions to my original relatively short remarks as I listened to the previous speakers. Once again, I apologise.
Thank you, Madam President.