Interview with Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Mikhail Ulyanov for Rossiya Segodnya news agency, December 18, 2017

Monday, 18 December 2017 11:35

Question: Could you comment on the situation around further investigations of chemical incidents in Syria? Earlier, the Foreign Ministry declared that you have not drawn a line under the case of Khan Sheikhoun and Moscow will be against further politicisation of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Will a new mechanism be created? What will be further efforts in this direction? Will Moscow move a new draft resolution to the UN Security Council?

Mikhail Ulyanov: This matter is not yet entirely clear. One thing is obvious today: the previous OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism disbanded and ceased to exist. It was “killed” by Western governments headed by the US, which voted against Russia’s UN Security Council draft resolution on extending and reinforcing the Joint Investigative Mechanism mandate. What is more, some of them, while voting, likely failed to understand that when they voted against our draft resolution, they put an end to the Mechanism’s operation. They suddenly changed their minds later, when they proposed consideration of a successor to the Joint Investigative Mechanism. We are not against consultations on this subject but we can say directly that, given this negative experience, we will be ready to accept a new investigative mechanism only if its mandate and investigative methods fully conform to the high standards of the Chemical Weapons Convention. This first of all means the need for investigations directly on the scene of crimes involving the use of chemical weapons. In addition, the new structure should resume investigations of the Khan Sheikhoun incident because the former JIM did not do its job and actually offered a cooked report which does not pass muster. We agree not to insist on carrying out new investigations of all previous cases, responsibility for which the JIM equally groundlessly assigned to Damascus. However, one case which took place in the area of the town of Sarmin in 2015 should be re-investigated, bearing in mind the JIM’s imaginative explanation that a barrel of chlorine, allegedly dropped from a Syrian military helicopter, got into a ventilation shaft of about the same diameter on a house roof. If these, in my opinion, absolutely reasonable conditions will be acceptable to our western partners, we could start talks about a successor to the JIM. We are not ourselves planning to move a new draft resolution at the UN Security Council. As for the tragic events in Khan Sheikhoun, we believe that sooner or later the real perpetrators will be identified. To do this, there is no urgent need to establish a new international investigative mechanism right now.

Other schemes can be used, including an investigation carried out by Syrian authorities, because Khan Sheikhoun will not be controlled by fighters forever.

Question: What does Russia think about the recent statement by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu, who said that the mission’s work in Syria dispelled any doubts regarding the OPCW capability to investigate the chemical attacks in Syria?

Mikhail Ulyanov: I have not seen this statement. But if it has been made indeed, the grounds for this optimistic assertion are unclear. In fact, the situation is completely different. Following the attack at Khan Sheikhoun, Russia and many other countries became convinced that the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria (FFMS) is unable and even unwilling to investigate the incident thoroughly. Even when the UN Secretariat’s Department of Safety and Security (DSS) secured the cooperation of the local field commanders regarding safe access to Khan Sheikhoun, the FFMS refused to make use of this. For the past few years, the OPCW mission preferred to conduct its investigation from Turkey. This is ridiculous. As a result, the OPCW personnel are unable to ensure compliance with the basic principle of appropriate chain of custody procedures for evidence collection and delivery to the assigned laboratory for analysis. The OPCW documents say that environmental samples that have been left unattended by international personnel even for a short time shall not be accepted as evidence. This principle was violated many times in Syria. There are also problems with the testimony of the alleged witnesses, who are brought to the FFMS attention by the fighters and the notorious White Helmets. The FFMS has not even stopped to ponder the fact that 57 of the 247 victims of the alleged sarin attack requested medical assistance before the attack. There are many more of such absurdities. The trouble is that our opponents are avoiding fact-based discussions, preferring to say that they have full confidence in the conclusions of international agencies. This is nothing other than propaganda of very low quality that has extremely negative consequences.

Question: What can you say about Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad’s statement that the report by the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism could be written before the investigations even began?

Mikhail Ulyanov: I do not think this statement should be taken literally. Of course, JIM’s report was not written before the investigation but is based on its results. In our opinion, what the high-ranking Syrian diplomat wanted to say is that the conclusion on Damascus’ guilt in the sarin attack at Khan Sheikhoun was made too hastily, that no other options were considered, and that JIM’s task was to make this conclusion as credible as possible. Moreover, it has been done extremely clumsily.

Question: Some Western politicians and media suggest that Damascus may have failed to report all of its chemical weapons stocks before their destruction. What does Moscow think about this hypothesis?

Mikhail Ulyanov: I would like to say that after Damascus joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) it submitted a declaration on its chemical stocks in compliance with the CWC provisions. Damascus was pressed for time and compiled the document amid ongoing hostilities. It is not surprising therefore that the essence of this document subsequently provoked questions. This is not at all unusual. Several states that joined the CWC in peacetime had to clarify and augment their declarations after their submission. In other words, the presumption of innocence should apply to Damascus and other states in this situation. There is not a shred of evidence to prove the allegation that the Syrian authorities have concealed part of their chemical stocks. If anyone has any doubts regarding this, the CWC stipulates challenge inspections, which should have been used instead of throwing unsubstantiated accusations at Damascus.

To be continued...

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