Two gas cylinders that formed crucial evidence in the OPCW’s investigations of an alleged chlorine attack have been destroyed in Syria, the head of the chemical weapons watchdog reported on Friday.
The Assad regime is blaming Israel for their destruction.
The cylinders had been examined by inspectors from the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) in connection with its investigation of events in Douma in 2018 but at the time the Syrian authorities did not allow them to be taken out of the country for forensic examination.
Consequently the cylinders had been placed in sealed containers and the Syrians were told they must not be tampered with or moved without written consent from the OPCW. However, at the time of their destruction they were 60km away from the place were they were supposed to be stored.
According to the Syrian authorities they were destroyed at 23:40 on 8 June in an Israeli missile strike on a military site known as al-Nasiriyah1.
The site was of particular interest to the OPCW because it housed a former chemical weapons production facility. Syria had previously declared the facility to OPCW inspectors but claimed it had never been used. The OPCW has since discovered evidence that casts doubt on the claim.
In a report in 2019, the FFM found “reasonable grounds” for believing a toxic chemical had been used as a weapon in Douma, that the chemical in question contained reactive chlorine and it was “possible” that the cylinders were the source of the chlorine.
Although the FFM’s work on Douma is over, the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) is carrying out further work with a view to identifying those reponsible. The IIT had been seeking to transport the cylinders to OPCW headquarters in the Hague but the Syrians once again refused to let them leave the country.
There was a previous incident in 2019 when inspectors noticed that remains of destroyed chemical munitions and production equipment which Syria had agreed to retain for further investigation had disappeared. A military official later told the inspectors he had sent them to a local smelting company where they were melted down.