Chapter 10: To Blame or Not to Blame?

Creation of the Fact-Finding Mission

Starting in April 2014, reports of chemical attacks in Syria began to multiply and it became clear the OPCW would need a formal mechanism for investigating them. To that end, Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü announced the creation of a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM). The decision, he said, was based on his personal authority to “seek to uphold at all times the object and purpose of the Chemical Weapons Convention”, though he had also secured prior approval from the UN Secretary-General. Three days before making the announcement he had met Ban Ki-moon who promised UN help with security, logistical, and operational aspects of the FFM in order to ensure “the safe access and movement of OPCW personnel, any accompanying United Nations personnel, and their equipment and samples”.

Identifying perpetrators

Establishing basic facts about suspected chemical attacks was a necessary step but it served no useful purpose without some follow-up. To that end, in August 2015 the UN Security Council decided — unanimously — to set up a Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). Its purpose was to “identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical, in the Syrian Arab Republic”. The JIM’s activities were confined to those cases where the FFM had already determined that chemical weapons were used or likely to have been used, and its task was to examine all available evidence with a view to assigning culpability. However, the JIM was not a judicial body; it could identify suspects but had no power to take action against them.

Deaths in Douma

The American move came a few days after a suspected chemical attack in Douma where dozens of people were reported to have died. Douma, about six miles from the centre of Damascus, lay in the Eastern Ghouta region which government forces had been actively seeking to recapture since February. By March they had succeeded in splitting the region into three enclaves, each controlled by a different rebel militia. At that point, according to a French government report, “the Syrian regime’s political and military strategy consisted in alternating indiscriminate military offensives against local populations, which sometimes included the use of chlorine, and pauses in operations for negotiations”.

Snoopers in the car park

Meanwhile, the OPCW was preparing to send its Fact-Finding Mission to Douma but just as the team was heading for Syria something very odd happened. Four Russian intelligence agents were caught trying to hack into the organisation’s wifi system from a car park next to its headquarters in the Netherlands. According to Director-General Arias this was not the first time the OPCW had been targeted. There had been cyber attacks since the beginning of the year and the OPCW had recently established a special fund to bolster its cyber security.



Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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Brian Whitaker

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.