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The events at the United Nations Security Council surrounding the joint OPCW-UN-JIM investigation report (“the report”) into the alleged Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapon attack are not being widely reported.
This is unfortunate because they show that international opinion is swinging heavily against the report, which has lost credibility.
Here an account of what happened on the two most recent occasions when the UN Security Council discussed this issue is necessary.
On 24th October 2017 the Russians vetoed at the UN Security Council a resolution to extend the OPCW’s mandate in Syria. They complained that the resolution presented to the UN Security Council to extend the OPCW’s mandate had been brought forward in haste before its report had been provided to the UN Security Council. They pointed out that this was obviously inappropriate and appeared intended to led authority to the report before it was published. They said that there was actually no need to bring forward a resolution to extend the OPCW’s mandate in that way, and that the more correct time to bring such a resolution forward was after the report had been submitted to the UN Security Council for its consideration.
The Russians during the 24th October 2017 UN Security Council session also severely criticised the methodology used to prepare the report by the OPCW-UN-JIM team, pointing out that it was being prepared without inspections of the two sites in Syria relevant to an understanding of the incident: Khan Sheikhoun itself, where the attack allegedly took place, and Al-Sharyat air base, from where the attack was allegedly launched.
At this point it is necessary to say that the current structure of the UN Security Council means that the US can normally rely on a built-in majority in any vote in the UN Security Council. In the overwhelming of cases where resolutions are presented to the UN Security Council the US can rely on the well-nigh automatic support of 9 to 10 of its members, which is enough to pass a resolution where there is no veto.
Though this proved to be the case with the resolution presented to the UN Security Council on 24th October 2017, the account of the discussion around the resolution provided by the United Nations press centre shows that the Russian concerns – both about the seeming haste in bringing the resolution forward, and concerning the flawed methodology being used to prepare the OPCW-UN-JIM report – were widely shared even by some states which voted for the US backed resolution.
The two strongest statements expressing such doubts were made by the ambassadors of Ethiopia and Egypt, both of who are normally reliable US allies.
Here is how the UN press centre reports the comments of the Ethiopian ambassador
TEKEDA ALEMU (Ethiopia) expressed regret that the Council had not been able to adopt the draft resolution since the Mechanism had been created on the basis of consensus. Ethiopia had voted in favour of the text because there remained credible allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, he said, adding that renewing the mandate should ensure continuity of the Mechanism’s work. Despite today’s outcome, Ethiopia was hopeful that the Council’ unity would be restored and compromise found, because failure to renew the mandate would be send the wrong message to the perpetrators. However, today’s outcome should not be interpreted as an a priori endorsement of the Mechanism’s report, he cautioned, emphasizing that its final version was expected to establish clear responsibility for the two incidents mentioned. Those responsible for the use of chemical weapons should be punished on the basis of robust and conclusive evidence, he said, underlining, however, that it was impossible to overlook the concerns of the Russian Federation and Bolivia, which was the reason why politicization must be avoided.
(bold italics added)
And here is how the UN press centre reports the comments of the Egyptian ambassador
AMR ABDELLATIF ABOULATTA (Egypt) said he had voted in favour of the draft because of his country’s interest in ensuring that those involved in using chemical weapons in Syria were identified. The use and growing proliferation of chemical weapons in that country posed a threat to security in the region and around the world, he said, noting the non-existence of an international system to deter non-State groups from acquiring such weapons. The Mechanism’s methodologies must be improved and sites in Syria visited, he said, adding that conducting such visits and collecting available evidence in a timely manner would help in creating a strong foundation for any findings to be issued. The Council could still renew the Mechanism’s mandate and improve its methodology, he said, emphasizing that its work must be carried out in an impartial and independent manner, and must not be politicized.
(bold italics added)
In the voting over the resolution two states voted against it – Russia and Bolivia – and two abstained – China and Kazakhstan.
It is however clear from their comments (see above) that if they had felt wholly free to vote as they wished, Ethiopia and Egypt would either have voted against it or would have abstained.
That would have brought the majority in support of the US backed resolution down to just nine, which is the bare majority needed to pass a resolution in the absence of a veto.
Ethiopia and Egypt were not prepared to go so far. The US is known to take careful note of how states vote in the UN Security Council. With Ethiopia and Egypt both heavily dependent on the US for aid, they were not prepared to risk their relationship with the US by openly defying it on an issue of such importance. However, as their comments show, their ambassadors nonetheless made their true feelings clear.
In the weeks that followed the OPCW-UN-JIM report was duly submitted to the UN Security Council. I do not propose to discuss this report in any detail because its flaws have already been thoroughly discussed and analysed by Rick Sterling.
My own quick observations about the OPCW-UN-JIM report are
(1) no attempt was made to inspect the site of the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun;
(2) no inference was drawn from the supposed security concerns which allegedly prevented such an inspection of the alleged site of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun from taking place;
(3) no inference was drawn from the apparent tampering of the site after the alleged attack (eg. by the concreting over of the bomb crater alleged to have been caused by the alleged attack); and
(4) no attempt was made to inspect Al-Sharyat air base – the site from which the alleged chemical weapons attack was allegedly launched – despite the fact that the security concerns which supposedly prevented an inspection of the Khan Sheikhoun site did not apply there.
Instead, in the absence of such inspections of the two sites relevant to an understanding of the supposed incident, the report relied wholly
(5) on eye-witness evidence, though this has been repeatedly shown to be unreliable;
(6) on video evidence, which is also generally acknowledged to be unreliable;
(In both cases there are or should be particular concerns about the use of this sort of evidence in this case given that it was provided in both cases by individuals operating in an Al-Qaeda controlled area)
(7) on sampling obtained through a chain of custody which is widely acknowledged to be insecure, and which also originated and was collected without proper or independent supervision in an Al-Qaeda controlled area.
The video evidence as it turns out is inconclusive (it does not show the attack) and the eye-witness evidence – obtained from witnesses in an Al-Qaeda controlled area – suffers from time discrepancies that the report is unable to resolve.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, there is even some reason to think that some of the individuals who were supposedly victims of the alleged attack were admitted to hospital before the earliest time that the attack could have taken place.
Such a report has inevitably come in for a great deal of criticism from the Russians, who have rejected it, and have called it unprofessional.
The key point about UN Security Council session on 16th November 2017 (yesterday) is that it shows the extent to which these criticisms are gaining traction.
Two draft resolutions were presented to the UN Security Council on 16th November 2017, one by the US and one by Russia.
With its built-in majority the US was initially successful in preventing the Russian drafted resolution from being put to the vote. It being obvious that the UN Security Council would not vote for the Russian drafted resolution the Russians withdrew it.
However, stung by criticism of the methodology used to prepare the OPCW-UN-JIM report, the US does appear to have conceded some cosmetic changes to the text of its resolution. However these proved unacceptable to the Russians.
The Russians accordingly vetoed the resolution, voting against it together with Bolivia, with China and on this occasion Egypt abstaining.
Up to this point events had followed what has become the established pattern of debates within the UN Security Council.
The US – relying on its built-on majority – proposes a resolution on Syria or Ukraine or some other issue, which it knows Russian cannot accept and will vote against. That gives the US and other Western ambassadors an opportunity to grandstand at Russian expense. The ambassadors of the non-aligned states look on with ill-concealed disapproval, making clear in coded language their unhappiness that the UN Security Council is being used in this way. However they then vote for the US proposed resolution through gritted teeth, ensuring that their concerns go unreported in the Western media. The Chinese ambassador makes clear his support for Russia but when the final vote comes usually abstains. The Russians give as good as they get, and veto the resolution as the US always expected. The Western media then writes up the story of how Russia was “isolated” in the UN Security Council, and round on Russia for being obstructive. Occasionally there is even a portentous article saying Russia should be stripped of its veto.
That was not what happened yesterday, and it was what happened after the Russians vetoed the US backed resolution which led to events no longer following the usual pre-arranged script.
Though the Russians had previously withdrawn their resolution in the knowledge that the UN Security Council would never vote for it, it was re-presented – undoubtedly by prearrangement with the Chinese and the the Russians – to the UN Security Council by the Bolivian ambassador once voting on the US draft resolution was out of the way.
On this occasion the three Eurasian states – Russia, China and Kazakhstan – all voted for the Russian drafted resolution along with Bolivia.
However only six or possibly seven states backed the US by voting against it – the US, Britain, France, Ukraine, Italy and Sweden, and possibly Uruguay.
Significantly it seems that all four of what are sometimes called the non-aligned states – Ethiopia, Egypt, Senegal and Uruguay – abstained, along with Japan – a US ally, which also abstained – even though all of these countries are in reality allies of the US.
(NB: there is an error in the UN press centre’s summary of the vote on the Russian backed resolution. It says that Japan both voted against and abstained in the vote on the resolution, which is of course impossible. In fact it seems clear that Japan abstained, an event so surprising that it knocked the UN press centre’s note takers off-balance, causing them to report Japan’s vote wrongly in one place in their summary as a vote against. The UN press centre’s summary also fails to report Uruguay’s vote, though it is likely that it too abstained).
The summary of the debate provided by the United Nations press centre vividly captures the quality of the whole debate
The United States draft on extending the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons‑United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism was rejected due to the negative vote of a permanent member following a vote of 11 in favour to 2 against (Bolivia, Russian Federation), with 2 abstaining (China, Egypt). Had it been adopted, it would have extended the Mechanism’s mandate — established by resolution 2235 (2015) and set to expire tomorrow, 17 November — for a further one year.
The Bolivian draft on extending the Mechanism, also for one year, was rejected after first being tabled by the Russian Federation and withdrawn. The text was rejected by a vote of 4 in favour (Bolivia, China, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation) to 7 against (France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom and United States) with 4 abstaining (Egypt, Ethiopia, Japan, Ukraine). It would have welcomed what it called the “full and profound cooperation” extended by the Syrian Government to the Mechanism and the other group investigating chemical attacks, the fact‑finding mission.
Regretting the lack of visits to the sites of chemical incidents, and lack of full chain of custody of evidence and other methodological factors that might cast doubt on the Mechanism’s conclusions, the Russian draft tabled by Bolivia would have requested that investigative teams be dispatched to Khan Shaykhun and the Shayrat airbase, subjects of the most recent report of the Mechanism. It would have requested the Mechanism to collect and analyse information on use by non‑State actors of chemical weapons, and to submit to the Council analytical reports every three months. It would have also called for greater focus on the use of non‑State weapons by non‑State actors.
In addition to the provisions contained in the draft that failed on 24 October (see Press Release SC/13040), the United States draft would have underscored the ongoing importance of the Mechanism conducting its investigations according to high methodological standards and basing its findings on the evidentiary levels outlined in its first report. It would have encouraged the Mechanism to consult United Nations bodies on counter‑terrorism and non‑proliferation to exchange information on attacks by non‑State actors. It also would have encouraged the Mechanism to inform the Council of any inability to gain access to sites relevant to investigations.
The Russian draft was withdrawn before either text was voted on, after a Russian Federation proposal that its draft be voted on after the United States draft was rejected in a procedural vote. It was tabled by Bolivia after the rejection of the United States draft and statements after that vote. Before and after the voting, all Council members condemned the use of chemical weapons and called for accountability for perpetrators through professional, impartial investigation.
In multiple statements, the supporters of the draft, however, said that today’s procedure pushed that goal back by not guaranteeing the continuity of the Mechanism. The representative of the United States said that the Russian Federation had struck a deep blow to the effort, killing the Mechanism and eliminating its ability to identify attackers and deter future attacks. She accused the Russian delegation of playing games with its procedural moves and not consulting with other delegations to come up with a compromise. The representative of the United Kingdom stated that the goal of the Russian Federation was to scuttle the Mechanism because it simply could not accept any investigation that attributed guilt to its Syrian ally.
Italy’s representative, voting for the United States draft and against the Russian and Bolivian text, recounted the extensive negotiations that had gone into the United States draft to ensure that all concerns were addressed. He said that the outcome weakened the security architecture and was difficult to merely accept. He pledged continued work to ensure the investigations continued, however.
Japan’s representative, having voted for the United States draft and abstaining from voting on the Russian text, stressed that despite the procedures, the Council was still responsible to act to prevent further use of chemical weapons and to provide accountability for attacks in Syria. He urged Council members to work to find consensus on renewing the Mechanism.See Also
The representative of the Russian Federation, in multiple statements, said that the flaws in the operations of the Mechanism were not concretely addressed in the United States draft, but were addressed in his text. He expressed disappointment that the initiative for extending and qualitatively improving the Mechanism had failed to secure the requisite support. Calling the way the votes had occurred an effort to disparage his country, he said various tricks would now be used to pin the cessation of the Mechanism’s activity on his country. Noting that his delegation had been accused of not taking part in consultations, he said that they had met three times with the United States colleagues.
Similarly, the representatives of China and Bolivia expressed their strong desire for the continuance of the Mechanism, but an equally strong wish that concerns over methodology be addressed. Both therefore voted for the Russian text, with Bolivia voting against the other draft and China abstaining.
Speaking before the first vote were Bolivia, Russian Federation and the United States. Speaking after that vote were the United States, France, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Senegal, China, Japan, Egypt, Russian Federation, Italy and Syria.
Speaking before the vote on the second draft were Bolivia, Russian Federation and the United States. Speaking after that vote were Egypt, Ukraine, Japan, China, Russian Federation and Bolivia. The Russian Federation spoke a final time after those speakers.
The meeting began at 3:15 p.m. and closed at 5:49 p.m. During that period the meeting was suspended for 15 minutes after the first vote and the comments following it.
Note that nine members of the UN Security Council (or eight if Uruguay voted with the US) – in other words a majority – either voted for or declined to vote against a Russian drafted resolution which
…..[welcomed] ……the “full and profound cooperation” extended by the Syrian Government to the Mechanism……[regretted] the lack of visits to the sites of chemical incidents, and lack of full chain of custody of evidence and other methodological factors that might cast doubt on the Mechanism’s conclusions….requested that investigative teams be dispatched to Khan Shaykhun and the Shayrat airbase….[and] requested the Mechanism to collect and analyse information on use by non‑State actors of chemical weapons, and to submit to the Council analytical reports every three months…..[and] called for greater focus on the use of non‑State weapons by non‑State actors.
Following this vote it is impossible to say that there is a majority supporting the OPCW-UN-JIM report in the UN Security Council or that Russia is in a minority in criticising it. Not surprisingly, after this debacle yesterday’s debate in the UN Security Council has gone almost entirely unreported in the Western media.
Not surprisingly US ambassador Nikki Haley was furious, as her outraged comments show
Ms. HALEY (United States) said that Bolivia had tried to pull one over on the Council by calling for the vote in the way it had. She added that flaws were only found in the Mechanism when evidence pointed to Syria. No flaws were found when evidence pointed to ISIL/Da’esh. Neither the Russian Federation nor Bolivia consulted with others on their procedures; they were playing games. She regretted that the whole procedure was embarrassing for the Council. The Russian Federation wanted a Mechanism that they could micromanage. Today’s developments had proven that the Russian Federation could not be trusted as a broker in Syria. The rejected resolution had all the changes that had been requested and the United States and all other members had been disrespected. The next chemical attack would be on the head of the Russian Federation.
There are two important facts to take away from this affair.
Firstly, despite some heroic attempts to argue otherwise, the methodology of the OPCW-UN-JIM report is quite simply too obviously flawed for it to gain widespread international acceptance.
In reality – as I have said previously – a truly impartial investigation to find out what actually happened in Khan Sheikhoun in April this year became impossible the moment President Trump launched his missiles against Al-Sharyat air base a few days after the supposed attack took place.
From that point the whole international prestige of the United States and of its NATO allies who had supported the US attack became bound up with a finding that the Syrian government had launched a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
Any other finding would have been politically impossible and acceptable, and given the hold the US and NATO powers have over the international bodies charged with carrying out international investigations (whose budgets they largely fund) it is completely unsurprising that the OPCW-UN-JIM investigation was structured to ensure that only the “correct” finding was made.
What happened in this case was that the flaws built into the investigation in order to ensure that it would come up with the “correct” finding were in the end simply too glaring, and could not be ignored even by countries which are normally supportive of the US.
Secondly, there were some concerns in Russia a few months ago when the country’s brilliant ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin died unexpectedly that he would prove to be irreplaceable.
The skill with which Vasily Nebenzia, Russia’s new ambassador to the UN, outwitted Nikki Haley yesterday, and the forceful way in which he made Russia’s case both during yesterday’s debate and during the previous debate on 24th October 2017, shows that these fears are groundless.
Nebenzia is clearly a fully worthy successor to Churkin, even if he perhaps lacks something of Churkin’s urbanity and charm. The other ambassadors will have taken note of the fact.
As to what actually took place in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, I doubt that we will ever know the full truth.
I continue to think that the most plausible scenario is the one proposed by Seymour Hersh on the basis of what he says he was told by a senior US intelligence official: that a Syrian bombing raid targeting some Al-Qaeda commanders inadvertently released a toxic cloud as a result of the release of materials held in the building in which the Al-Qaeda commanders were meeting. Since the chain of custody of the forensic samples used to prove that it was instead a sarin attack is insecure, I don’t think it is possible to place any reliance on them.
The suggestion that Seymour Hersh’s story is untrue because he cannot identify the building in question is a red herring. Seymour Hersh’s story is not based on personal observation of Khan Sheikhoun but on information he says he was provided by his sources within the US intelligence community. Seymour Hersh provided Die Welt (which published his story) with the details of these sources, enabling Die Welt to contact them directly and to authenticate that what Seymour Hersh was saying about them was true.
As I have said previously, it is well within the ability of Al-Qaeda to manipulate or fabricate evidence and to manipulate the way it is presented, and it continues to astonish me that so many people remain in denial about this.
I note for example that the person who attempted to uphold the findings of the OPCW-UN-JIM report which I mentioned previously appears to be unaware that it was Al-Qaeda which was in physical control of Al-Sheikhoun on the day when the chemical weapons attack is supposed to have taken place, and that it continues to be in control there to this day.
Others will of course dispute these opinions, as is their right.
The point however is that politically speaking it no longer matters. Following the debate in the UN Security Council yesterday the effect of what happened in Khan Sheikhoun in April both on the course of the Syrian war and on the future development of international relations has ended. The chapter on this incident is closed.
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