25 Jun 2014

Syria may still have hidden chemical weapons, OPCW admits

The head of the global chemical weapons watchdog tells Channel 4 News it is an “open question” if hidden chemical weapons remain in Syria, two days after the last shipment was supposed to have left.

Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said more clarification was needed before he could pronounce Syria chemical-weapons free.

However, he said that if new, conclusive evidence emerged of chemical weapons attacks within the country, the OPCW would respond swiftly and the consequences would be “severe”.

He also said he believed it was unlikely that any chemical weapons were in the hands of the more extreme fringes of the Syrian opposition or jihadist groups in the region like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis).

He told Channel 4 News: “Regarding Syrian chemical weapons, whether there are some hidden assets in certain locations in Syria – this is clearly an open question. And at the moment the OPCW is addressing some questions based on the Syrian declaration and we want to clarify certain aspects.”

Whether there are some hidden assets in certain locations in Syria – this is clearly an open question. Ahmet Uzumcu, OPCW

On Monday this week, the OPCW said that the last shipment of dangerous chemicals which had been declared by the Syrian regime had left Syria, on the way to eventual destruction on board a US ship. Several deadlines for destruction have already been missed but Ambassador Uzumcu said this process was due to begin next week.

However, whether this means all chemical weapons are gone from Syria is a different matter – because that depends on whether President Bashar al-Assad declared all of the weapons his regime has stockpiled.

Speaking in Copenhagen, Ambassador Uzumcu said: “The Syrians have been quite cooperative in the process. We don’t know how long it is going to take but our goal is to give the necessary assurances to the membership as well as the international community that the Syrians have declared all the chemical weapons they possessed.”

‘Systematic’ chemical attacks

The OPCW itself said just last week that chemical attacks were still “systematic” in Syria, including with chlorine gas. Chlorine was not on the list of toxic agents the OPCW ordered Assad to hand over, although it is banned by the organisation.

Ambassador Uzumcu said if more evidence emerges of chemical attacks after the supposedly final shipment of declared weapons left the country, it would be a serious situation.

“If there are some uses of chemical weapons in Syria, we could send our teams of inspectors… and we would be able to say whether these allegations were true or not and – if the perpetrators of the attack could be identified – the consequences would be severe.”

Syria agreed to hand over its chemical weapons last year after international pressure, including the threat of US air strikes, after horrific evidence emerged of a government chemical attack on the edges of Damascus which killed around 1,500 people – as well as other similar attacks.

Watch: the evidence of chemical attacks in Syria here

Both sides in the Syrian conflict have accused the other of using chemical weapons. But Ambassador Uzumcu suggested it was unlikely that the opposition had the capability for such attacks at this point.

“Whether some groups do possess or have access to chemical substances, or could produce weapons – clearly, at a small scale some groups could produce small quantities, but large-scale production is required with well-equipped facilities, therefore I don’t think that it is possible,” he said.

“The Syrian authorities did not inform us about any access or seizure of their stockpiles by individual groups or factions.”

Fears about the potential use of chemical weapons in Iraq have also been raised in recent days, after Isis took over one of Saddam Hussein’s former chemical weapons complexes – although most of the chemicals in the facility are believed to either be inaccessible or redundant.

Ambassador Uzumcu added: “We don’t have any evidence from other sources too about the possession of chemical weapons by armed groups in Syria or Iraq.”