Commenting on last week’s chemical attack that killed scores and injured hundreds in northern Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that Russia is “preparing to officially refer the situation to the relevant United Nations body in the Hague and call on the international community to carefully investigate this occurrence.”
There are several unanswered questions about the attack. We don’t know what weapon – or which chemical – was used. Clinical signs and victims’ symptoms, including pinpoint pupils, indicate it was an organophosphorus compound, which affects the nervous system. Turkish authorities have conducted tests on samples from victims, but have not released details of their findings.
It is also important to identify who carried out the attack and who knew – or should have known – about it, so they can be held responsible.
An investigation is already underway. A Fact-Finding Mission at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has announced it will investigate the April 4 attack. If it finds that chemicals were used, the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism will investigate who was responsible.
But for these teams to conduct proper investigations, the Syrian government must cooperate. That means facilitating, to the extent they can, access to sites of chemical attacks and providing investigators with information. The Syrian government has not always done so. For example, it appears to have withheld from one investigation important information that could establish who was responsible for chemical attacks with chlorine. As one of Syria’s strongest allies, Russia should ensure the Syrian government fully cooperates.
Russian officials said the Syrian government did not carry out the recent chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, and Putin’s response seemed to echo that position. But will Russia respect the investigation’s findings and take action if it finds the Syrian government responsible? When the Joint Investigative Mechanism concluded that Syrian government forces were responsible for chemical attacks with chlorine, Russia, together with China, vetoed a resolution seeking to impose sanctions on those responsible.
The United Kingdom, France, and the United States have just introduced a draft resolution at the UN Security Council condemning the chemical attack and requiring full cooperation with the investigation. Whether Russia negotiates in good faith will show if Putin was sincere when he called for investigations.
If the investigation comes back saying that the Syrian government did it, Russia should support sanctions. There is no point calling for investigations if you just disregard the findings when you don’t like them.