On 29 June the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) in Syria issued its report concluding that sarin (or a sarin-like chemical) had been used at Khan Shaykhun (Idlib Governate) on 4 April 2017 (unrestricted report no. S/1510/2017). The attack prompted the United States to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian government’s Shayrat Air Base three days later. Syria, with active support from Iran and Russia, denied engaging in chemical warfare. The FFM’s report has now been transferred to the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) in Syria in New York in order for it to establish and attribute responsibility for the attack. The FFM report, which was more broadly distributed Friday, is part of the ever growing mass of information and analyses concerning the continued use of such weapons in the Syrian civil war which began in 2012. The United Nations Security Council and OPCW Member States remain unable to agree Syrian Government responsibility for any of the continued instances of chemical warfare.

While the FFM did not visit the site and could not determine the nature of the dispersal device, it did conclude that the deaths and casualties were caused by sarin (or a sarin-like chemical) emanating from a single crater. This crater has been the topic of intense discussion and debate as to what munition created it and whether the chemical warfare agent originated from this crater. The FFM established the soil in the crater carried sarin, isopropylmethylphosphonic acid (IMPA), diisopropyl methylphosphonate (DIMP) and hexamine. Syria declared hexamine to the OPCW in its prior chemical weapons declarations. Sarin-like may refer to the detection of the methylphosphonate functional group in the biomedical samples which, in turn, could theoretically derive from a sarin analogue based on a different alcohol.

Overall the FFM based its conclusions on biomedical specimens, interviews and official and non-official reporting and analyses. FFM members were present at autopsies (probably carried out in Turkey). The information baseline included open sources. The selected open sources cited are mainly twitter and youtube videos (this is not reporting by think tanks or universities, or CBRNe World).

The political splits within the OPCW Executive Council and UN Security Council show no signs of easing. The G20 Summit will be held in Hamburg on 7-8 July. Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump have confirmed attendance. Will the FFM’s findings be placed on the G20 meeting agenda or might they be discussed at the margins? The smooth and effective functioning of the CWC treaty regime remain at heightened risk irrespective of the eventual outcome of the Syrian civil war and associated geopolitical arrangements.

John Hart
Senior Researcher
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

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