The United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a resolution on Friday that aims to investigate chemical weapon attacks in Syria and ultimately assign blame for those responsible.
The resolution requests that the UN Secretary General, working with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), propose a joint investigative mechanism within 20 days. According to the text, that body would "identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups or governments" that perpetrated attacks.
The question of chemical weapon use in Syria has plagued the Council since an August 2013 sarin gas attack that left hundreds of civilians dead in a suburb of Damascus. A subsequent US-Russia brokered deal led to the destruction of what is believed to be the bulk of Syria's stockpiles.
Despite the agreement, allegations of chemical weapons use have continued in the years since, centering on the purported deployment of chlorine in aerial assaults on rebel-controlled areas. Chlorine is a so-called dual use chemical that is not illegal under international law unless it is weaponized. Activists and Western governments claim that regime helicopters have dropped jerry-rigged barrel bombs containing deadly quantities of the chemical in several dozen attacks.
The OPCW itself last fall reported "compelling confirmation" that chlorine was used "systematically and repeatedly" in several attacks. The OPCW, however, is not mandated to assign blame, and the US and other Western Council members have pushed for months for the establishment of a separate mechanism to do so.
"Until we adopted today's resolution, there was no mechanism to take the obvious next step — determining who is involved in such attacks," US ambassador Samantha Power told the Council following its vote. "Even when there were obvious signs pointing to the parties responsible, investigators were not empowered to point the finger. This has compounded an already-rampant sense of impunity in Syria."
'Pointing the finger matters.'
"Pointing the finger matters," added Power.
Friday's text was again the result of cooperation between the US and Russia. Moscow has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's principal backer on the Council. Once created, the mechanism would be authorized to operate for one year, but could be given more time with Council approval. The resolution requests that the investigative body return its first report to the Council no later than 90 days after its establishment.
Following the vote, Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin spoke to reporters about Washington and Moscow's collaboration on the text.
"I hope it will translate into our continued joint work on the political front," he said. "Let's hope we will maintain the momentum."
Russia's role in drafting — and ultimately approving — the resolution will be heavily scrutinized by observers to determine if the Kremlin is altering its stance on Syria, now inits fifth year of civil war. However, should the joint mechanism determine culpability, any subsequent action would still require additional authorization by the Council, which Russia — or any permanent member — could veto.
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