OPCW probing over 20 reports of Syria chemical attacks

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons believes ISIS may have manufactured mustard gas used in Syria and Iraq.

Ben Ariel, Canada ,

OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu
OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu

The global watchdog tasked with destroying chemical weapons is probing more than 20 reports of the alleged use of toxic arms in Syria since August, its chief told AFP Friday.

Experts with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also believe that the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group may have itself manufactured mustard gas used in attacks in Syria and Iraq, the body's director general Ahmet Uzumcu revealed.

It was an "extremely worrying" development for the OPCW, he said, as the organization marks its 20th anniversary in 2017 having overseen the destruction of 94 per cent of the world's declared chemical weapons.

The OPCW has been investigating chemical weapons attacks that have taken place in the civil war in Syria over the last several years.

A joint UN-OPCW panel recently concluded that government forces carried out three chemical attacks on villages in 2014 and 2015.

The UN-OPCW panel also found that the ISIS in Syria used mustard gas as a weapon in August 2015, one of several past assessments that ISIS had used chemical weapons in both Syria and Iraq.

And, last week, the OPCW’s executive body took the unprecedented step of condemning both Syria and ISIS jihadists for using toxic weapons, the first time the watchdog has found a state member to have violated the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Speaking to AFP hours after the UN Security Council extended the mandate for another year of the special joint UN- OPCW panel to investigate chemical attacks in Syria, Uzumcu said stopping jihadists and individual groups getting hold of chemical weapons was "a challenge" which was "at the top of the agenda" for the organization.

Since August 1 there had been a number of allegations, by both the Syrian regime and the opposition rebels, of the "use of chlorine and unidentified agents in Aleppo and in northern parts of Syria" such as Idlib, he said.

The OPCW is already "collecting information and analyzing" it, the OPCW director general said, to see if the allegations "are credible or not in order to deepen our investigation".

"The number (of allegations) is quite high. I counted more than 20," Uzumcu told AFP, revealing that even on Thursday the Syrian authorities had sent to the OPCW fresh reports of chemical weapons use against them.

Samples of mustard gas taken from attacks in Syria and Iraq have been analyzed by the OPCW's laboratories in The Netherlands and "the findings do suggest that this substance may have been produced by ISIS itself," said Uzumcu.

It was "poor quality, but still harmful ... and it was weaponized so it's extremely worrying," the OPCW chief said.

"Especially given the fact that there are several foreign fighters in those countries who may go back to their countries of origin one day. This requires a high-degree of vigilance within our countries," he added.

The Syrian government has provided information about alleged chemical weapons attacks against regime forces which they have reported to the OPCW, but despite requests about alleged attacks in opposition-held areas "we didn't receive any input on those", Uzumcu told AFP.

He also revealed that a special team of up to 15 people has been established in the past year ready to deploy within 24 hours if any state asks for help following a suspected chemical attack, perhaps by militant or extremist groups.

"We take very seriously this threat, I'm personally concerned. This is a real threat," he stressed.

(Arutz Sheva’s North American desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)