Russia tries to block new Syria chemical weapons probe

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Russia urged member states of the global chemical weapons watchdog to vote on Thursday against funding a new team that will identify the culprits behind toxic attacks in Syria.

Moscow and its allies are trying to block next year’s budget for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- potentially leaving the entire agency unable to operate -- if it includes money for the new Identification and Investigations Team (IIT).

The United States hit back by accusing Russia of a “cover-up” of the use of chemical weapons by its ally Damascus, at a tense annual meeting of the OPCW’s 193 member countries in The Hague.

“If the financing for the IIT comes out of voluntary contributions (the annual budget paid for by member states) then this will mean one thing only,” Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin told the meeting.

“It will mean that the backers (of the IIT) are going to hire so-called investigators looking at chemical crimes, they will be hired to draw up conclusions which suit the ends of the sponsors,” Shulgin said.

“This is disquieting. Confirmation can be found in what’s happening surrounding Douma.”

Russia and the West have already clashed repeatedly over allegations by two whistleblowers that the OPCW altered the conclusions of a probe that found chlorine was used in an attack in the Syrian town of Douma in April 2018.

Western powers launched airstrikes against Syria in response.

OPCW states then approved a western-backed motion in 2018 to give the organization new powers to pin blame on culprits. Previously it could only confirm whether a chemical assault had occurred.

“The Syrian cover-up is never going to work because the international community has the courage of its convictions. Unfortunately Russia has played a central role in this cover-up,” said US ambassador to the OPCW Kenneth Ward.

“Russia and Syria may sit with us here but they stand apart from us in a fundamental way. They continue to embrace chemical weapons.”

France meanwhile defended the “independent and impartial” Douma investigation.

“We regret that some delegations have given more importance to partial leaks than to a report which was generated in a rigorous manner,” said France’s deputy permanent representative to the OPCW, Tiphaine Jouffroy.

WikiLeaks at the weekend released an email from an investigator accusing the OPCW of altering the original findings of probe to make evidence of a chemical attack seem more conclusive. Another whistleblower’s report complained about the Douma probe earlier this year.

The OPCW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 and says it has eliminated 97 percent of the world’s chemical weapons.