Thank you for the kind introduction and let me express my appreciation to the Hudson Institute for hosting today’s webinar. The State Department bureau I have the privilege to lead, the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, is a leader of U.S. international efforts to deter chemical weapons use anywhere and for any reason. This includes holding Syria and its principal enabler – the Russian Federation – accountable for the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons against its own people. The topic of our discussion today – the groundbreaking report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon’s Investigation and Identification Team or IIT – is the latest successful effort toward accountability.
On April 8th, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – the OPCW –released the first IIT report. The IIT, is an independent and impartial team of experts that was established pursuant to a special June 2018 decision of the OPCW’s Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The IIT is charged with identifying the perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria where the OPCW’s previously established Fact-Finding Mission, or FFM, has identified use or likely use of a chemical weapon, and the OPCW-UN’s prior Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, has not issued a report. At the UN Security Council in New York, Russia outrageously repeatedly vetoed the continued operation of the JIM, which is why the OPCW’s new IIT is so vital in continuing to hold Syria accountable for its chemical weapons use.
For this first report, the IIT investigated three FFM-confirmed chemical attacks from March 2017. Following thorough investigations, the report attributes all three instances of chemical weapons use to the Assad regime. The IIT’s findings were based on an exhaustive nine-month investigation that included: interviews with witnesses; review of previously conducted testimonies and reported symptoms; chemical analysis of environmental samples and analysis of ammunition fragments; review of satellite and other imagery; analysis of flight plans; and consultation with experts. These in-depth investigations allowed the IIT to come to detailed conclusions regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria that occurred in March 2017, immediately prior to the April 2017sarin nerve agent attack by the Assad regime in Khan Shaykhun.
In its report, the IIT specifically concluded there are reasonable grounds to believe that on both March 24 and 30, 2017, a SU-22 military airplane belonging to the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Arab Air Force departed from Shayrat airbase and, at approximately 6:00 AM, dropped an M4000 aerial bomb containing sarin on southern Ltamenah affecting 16 and 60 people, respectively. It also concluded there are reasonable grounds to believe that on March 25, at approximately 3:00 PM, a helicopter of the Syrian Arab Air Force, departing from Hama airbase, dropped a cylinder bomb containing chlorine on the Ltamenah hospital affecting at least 30 people.
During his presentation on the IIT report to OPCW States Parties, Ambassador Santiago Oñate of Mexico – the head of the IIT – highlighted that the sarin used in Ltamenah on 24 and 30 March was produced through the same chemical processes and with the same types of raw materials as sarin found in Syria’s declared stockpile. He further pointed out that no other States or entities other than the Syrian Arab Republic are known to have developed or manufactured sarin with the chemical characteristics found in the IIT samples. Furthermore, he explained that the only aerial assets present in the area at the time of the attacks belonged to the Syrian Arab Air Force.
I want to point out the exhaustive nature of the IIT’s efforts. The IIT explicitly considered and investigated possible alternative scenarios and theories and found each of them to be implausible and unsupported by evidence. The IIT’s detailed and objective analysis is strong enough to withstand the Syrian and Russian disinformation that seeks to discredit the IIT and its conclusions. Though the IIT was not able to make factual findings regarding the specific chain of command for the orders related to the three chemical attacks in Ltamenah, the Coordinator explained the IIT considered the attacks “would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command,” and added that “if authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot.”
While the IIT’s findings are not surprising, they are nonetheless alarming. The IIT adds its credible international voice to the growing global chorus of many others confirming the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The IIT is the second impartial, independent entity to specifically attribute responsibility for chemical weapons use to the Assad regime based on the work of the FFM. Before it was disbanded due to repeated Russian vetoes, the OPCW-UN JIM confirmed the Assad regime was responsible for four chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The IIT report is the latest in a large and growing body of evidence that the regime uses chemical weapons attacks as part of a deliberate campaign of violence against the Syrian people.
The Assad regime’s systematic use of chemical weapons and utter disregard for human life has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Syrian conflict. Among the first of the documented chemical weapons atrocities occurred on August 21, 2013, when the Syrian regime launched a murderous chemical attack using the nerve agent sarin on the opposition-controlled suburb of Ghouta in Damascus – leaving more than 1,400 Syrians dead, many of them children. Since then, there have been more than 50 chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime, killing and injuring countless more victims.
The United States has taken decisive action in response to Assad’s chemical weapons use. We continue to call on Allies and partners to take similar action. To date, the United States has pursued economic, diplomatic, and military responses of increasing intensity over the course of this conflict. Following the regime’s sarin attack on Khan Shaykhun in April 2017, the United States took appropriate and proportionate military action when we launched 53 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Airbase in Syria where the aircraft that carried out the attack originated. A year later, following a chemical weapons attack on Douma in April 2018, the United States, along with our British and French allies, launched airstrikes on facilities associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program.
More recently, in September of last year, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the United States was providing an additional $4.5 million to the OPCW for its Syria-related efforts and would implement sanctions designations on Russia for assisting the Syrian war machine. This was in response to the May 2019 chlorine attack. In response to the latest attribution findings, the United States is considering a range of actions at the United Nations and at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The United States will work with allies and responsible states to ensure that the Assad regime is held accountable.
The United States applauds the professional, impartial work of the OPCW. The work by the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team, FFM, and IIT are beyond reproach. The IIT prepared well-founded, clear, and irrefutable findings. It is now the responsibility of nations around the world to uphold the norms of civilized international behavior and take action in response to these findings – both at the OPCW and in the United Nations Security Council. It is imperative that we unite and make clear we will not accept the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and those responsible for these heinous crimes will be held accountable.
Russia has failed to live up to its 2013 commitment to ensure the Assad regime completely remove and destroy its chemical stockpile and fully dismantle its ability to develop and produce chemical weapons. Russia’s unrelenting protection of the Syrian regime, failure to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and active efforts to assist in covering up Syria’s chemical weapons use calls into question Moscow’s commitment to resolving the overall crisis and to larger non-proliferation priorities.
As you all know, this month, on May 8th, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, of Victory in Europe in the concluding months of the Second World War, in which the people of the Soviet Union suffered massively. As we reflect on this moment in history, I express my personal view, and sadness, in watching the Russian Federation display such a callous disregard for the people of Syria.
In closing, let me underscore that the Assad regime’s barbaric history of using chemical weapons against its own people cannot and will not be forgotten. The IIT will continue its investigations into additional attacks, including the April 2018 attack on Douma. The United States, along with the other responsible states, will continue to pursue accountability for the Assad regime for these unforgiveable acts. The United States is determined to pursue all available efforts to uphold the global norm against the use of chemical weapons and to ensure those involved in chemical weapons use face consequences. Justice will prevail.
Thank you, and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.