The OPCW investigation of Khan-Sheikhoun chemical incident: how credible? (Article by Ambassador Yakovenko for The Daily Telegraph)

Unfortunately, there is still no proper reaction by the OPCW to the alleged use of sarin in Khan Sheikhoun of 4 April. The work of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to Syria is shrouded in secrecy. What is clear is that it continues to operate in a remote mode, using Internet data mostly concocted by the radical elements of the Syrian opposition, including the notorious “White Helmets”. From the scarce information one can gather that the samples taken from those injured or dead were tested in the OPCW-licensed laboratories in Britain and Turkey and established to be sarin or sarin-like substance. However, the samples were not taken at the site of the incident, but, it appears, in the Turkish territory, to which the injured and the bodies of the dead were taken. Hence the basic principle of the investigation, that of the chain of custody, hasn’t been observed. There are no answers on that from our Western partners. As there is no clear evidence that those people were from Khan Sheikhoun and not from somewhere else.

We requested the British Government to share the information on the analysis conducted by the British scientists of samples at their disposal. We wanted to clarify all the circumstances, including the procedures (chain of custody) followed, the precise kind of the samples (biological, soil etc.) and the places they were taken. It is also not clear whether the British side gained access to Khan Sheikhoun, and if so, why it is not assisting in providing such an access to the OPCW experts for conducting a comprehensive and credible investigation in conformity with the UN Security Council resolutions? If the samples were not taken at the scene of the events and without following the chain of custody rule, then what, in London’s opinion, is the value of such tests?

Unfortunately, the answer we received was disappointing and did not contain any substantial information on the issues we raised. It is totally beyond the point and ends up with appeal to trust the British Government’s word.

The questioning of the witnesses by the FFM is equally dubious. One can’t be sure those “witnesses” were indeed residents of Khan Sheikhoun. Moreover, they are mostly supporters of the opposition or their family members. Their impartiality is questionable, even more so when the inquiry is limited to these interviews and the analysis of the Internet content.

At the same time, a lot of fake photo- and video-materials are being posted. Let me draw your attention to the analysis of the social media content on the Khan Sheikhoun incident provided by the NGO “Swedish Doctors for Human Rights”. Or to the report by Professor A.Postol from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A lot of other information is available demonstrating that those photo- and video- materials were clearly staged.

Russia insists on a credible international investigation, since it looks like the FFM, so far, has not been doing its job properly. The FFM team, in terms of its composition, is absolutely dominated by the countries hostile to Damascus. And this is another fundamental flaw, which is in sharp contrast to the established international practice. According to the UN Secretary-General decision the UN-OPCW investigation mechanism mustn’t include representatives of the UNSC P5, as well as Syria’s neighbours. And yet the heads of both FFM segments are British citizens, albeit no one can in earnest assume the British position in the Syrian conflict is unbiased. Why not act by the book and why afraid of the truth being established in due course?

From the very beginning the Russian position was in favour of a proper full-fledged international investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, at the OPCW Executive Committee’s extraordinary session on 21 April the Western countries blocked the Russo-Iranian draft decision on this issue.

According to the UN Secretariat, the security situation in Khan Sheikhoun is quite acceptable. The Syrian side is also ready, in the interests of this investigation, to put a ceasefire in force along the way of the OPCW staff’s travel to the site. The Director-General of the OPCW Technical Secretariat stated his willingness to send the OPCW experts to Khan Sheikhoun.

The Syrian Government is also ready to ensure a totally secure environment for the FFM staff to visit Shayrat airbase. We insist on such a visit. The US Administration explained its Shayrat missile attack by the alleged storage of sarin at this airbase. It is necessary to verify this allegation.

In our view, it is a fair assumption that sarin could have been used in Khan Sheikhoun. The question is who did it and how the toxic substance was delivered. A few versions exist. As the information is accumulated there is more and more grounds to think that the terrorists controlling this area blew up the home-built sarin munition on the ground which resulted in civilian casualties. The “White Helmets” acted too hastily to stir public outrage and posted in-advance prepared materials on the Internet. However, they made several bad mistakes which point to the staged nature of those materials. In contrast to some other countries who are in a hurry to blame Damascus, we don’t insist on our version, but we believe it should be taken into account.

The Director-General of the OPCW Technical Secretariat stated his willingness to send the OPCW experts to Khan Sheikhoun. We are hoping this process will not take too long.

The definitive answer to what really happened in Khan Sheikhoun can only be provided by a full-fledged investigation in full compliance with the OPCW verification provisions. It is too serious a matter for peace in the region and a wider world for the OPCW to fail this test of credibility. Those who have taken over the FFM investigation are all to eager to manage the truth in their vested interest. Otherwise they wouldn’t obstruct efforts to open it up for due scrutiny. It is this tactics of pushing the UN Security Council to act on the basis of forged evidence and flawed investigation, that undermines the rules-based world order.

It has to be borne in mind that the British Foreign Secretary recently hypothesized on joining another US action in Syria in response to another chemical incident, which means that an order for it has already been placed. A lot is said about the disastrous lack of trust in international relations. Unilateral actions and takeovers of international bodies by the West further undermine it.

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