Ambassador Joseph Manso discusses the OPCW IIT report on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Douma in April 2018 and answers questions.
MODERATOR: This call is strictly to discuss the OPCW IIT report on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Douma in April 2018. Ambassador Manso is the U.S. Representative to the OPCW, and he will only take questions during this briefing related to the Douma report. This briefing is on the record and will be conducted in English with simultaneously Arabic interpretation. To listen to the call in Arabic, select the Arabic audio channel at the bottom of your screen by clicking the globe icon.
We’ll try to get to as many questions as possible in the 30 minutes we have today, so please show your support and like the questions you’d most like us to cover. You can notify us of any technical difficulties at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov.
And with that, let’s get started. Ambassador Manso, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Thank you, Andrea, and thanks to everyone. Good afternoon and thanks for attending this briefing. First, I’d like to express my deep condolences for the tragic loss of life in both Türkiye and Syria due to this week’s devastating earthquakes. It is not lost on us that many of the first responders in Syria now pulling civilians from the rubble were just a few years ago helping civilians who had been burned or suffocated by the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. The humanity and bravery of these Syrian first responders is astonishing. We salute them.
Earlier this month, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is regrettable that we must continue to express condemnation of the use of chemical weapons.
On January 27, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Investigation and Identification Team – the IIT – released its third report attributing the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and that’s the subject of our discussion today. The OPCW director-general briefed this report to OPCW delegations last Thursday, February 2nd; and yesterday, February 7th, he briefed the UN Security Council in New York.
The IIT found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Arab Air Forces dropped two cylinders containing toxic chlorine gas on the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7, 2018. These weapons hit two residential buildings in a central area of that city, releasing the toxic chemical and killing 43 individuals and affecting countless more. The report also mentions that the ITT received information that Russian forces were collocated at the Douma Air Base alongside the Tiger Forces at the time of the incident and that the airspace over Douma was exclusively controlled by the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces. The report clearly refutes Russia’s claim that this was an attack carried out by opposition forces and underscores the lack of cooperation from Russia and Syria to provide information on this attack.
This is the fifth separate instance of chemical weapons use that OPCW Investigation and Identification Team has attributed to the Assad regime. This is in addition to four previous chemical weapons attacks (inaudible) OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, the JIM, attributed to the Assad regime. Therefore, the chemical weapons attack in Douma is not an isolated incident. The Syrian regime has a clear history of using chemical weapons, even after declaring it had given up its chemical weapons program. The Assad regime’s blatant violations are an affront to the Chemical Weapons Convention and to basic human rights.
The international community must and will continue to work together at both the OPCW and the United Nations to hold the Assad regime to account for its use of chemical weapons against its own population. Doing so will help restore deterrence against the use of chemical weapons and change the calculus of any state tempted to use chemical weapons in the future. There must be no impunity for the use of chemical weapons.
Thank you to all of you for being here, and with that, I am happy to take questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing.
Our first question comes from Camille Tawil from Asharq Al-Awsat in the United Kingdom. And Camille asks, “In light of the chemical weapons use report, what is your message to the nations that are trying to establish links with the regime? Türkiye and some Arab states seem to be ignoring your objection to dealing with Assad. What would you say to them?”
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Well, thank you for that question. I think our policy is clear. The U.S. administration will say that we will not normalize relations with the Assad regime. We do not support others normalizing relations until there is irreversible progress toward a political resolution to the conflict, in line with Security Council Resolution 2254. We have not seen that progress to date. In addition, of course it is U.S. policy to hold accountable those who use chemical weapons, and this is a continuing effort with regard to the Assad regime in Syria and very much continues to be part of U.S. policy.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll now turn to one of our live questions. We’d like to open a line for Ahmad Zakaria, please. Ahmad, you can now ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi. (Inaudible) Al Arabiya.
MODERATOR: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: (In Arabic.)
MODERATOR: Oh, Ahmad, I’m sorry to – so we can only take the question in English, so let me go ahead and ask his question: “The United States is also a member of the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, which was formed in 2018 and includes 40 countries and the European Union. What are the options open to this international group to act in the event that the Security Council is unable to impose measures under chapter or clause?”
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay, thank you for that question. We are indeed members of the International Partnership against Impunity. I would say here this is part of a – I think a broader issue of what can we do, what can the Partnership against Impunity do, and what can others do to hold the Assad regime accountable? And this is an important question because often in multilateral diplomacy, our efforts to hold someone accountable and to accomplish something, it’s not just an event; it’s a process. And I would say there are a number of things that we can do to hold the Assad regime accountable.
And the first thing I would say – and this is certainly also something that the international partnership could do – is to remember and honor the victims. This report enters into history the research and the evidence that establishes these terrible acts. It brings to light for the entire international community the truth of what happened to these victims, and it is something, it is part of them, this structure that we are building to ensure accountability for these attacks. So the very first thing is to remember and honor the victims, and to use the information that is provided in this report.
Of course, the second thing I would note is that the OPCW, where all of the countries that are members of the Partnership against Impunity are also members of the OPCW, and the Conference of States Parties in 2021 condemned Syria’s use of chemical weapons and suspended certain rights and privileges by an overwhelming vote of 87 to 15. So with 102 countries present, 87 voted to condemn the actions of the Syrian regime and to hold them accountable by suspending some of their rights and privileges under the OPCW. And we can certainly continue to work within the OPCW, and the partnership, I’m sure, will be active within the OPCW to continue to bring consequences to bear on the Syrian regime.
Of course, a third thing is that the United States and many nations, including many nations that are members of the partnership, impose sanctions and travel restrictions on individuals and entities that are part of Syria’s CW program. The United States and the partnership also supports the UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism that works diligently to document and build case files on violations of international humanitarian law, human rights, and other abuses that have taken place in Syria, including the use of chemical weapons.
And of course, and I think the point of this whole (inaudible) to wrap it up, is that there is a coalition of international organizations – which include the Partnership against Impunity, the OPCW, members of the Security Council and the General Assembly, and of course the United States – that coordinate their actions to help hold the Syrian regime accountable. And in this regard, I would also draw your attention to a statement made yesterday by eight members of the Security Council also along these lines.
I hope that answers your question.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’ll now go to a question in our chat from Aya Sayed from Roayah News Network in Egypt. And the first question is: “Why did it take so long to prove that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack in Douma?”
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay, well, that’s a good question. And the bottom line here of course is that the IIT is a highly professional but a small team. This is the third report that the IIT has produced since 2019. They published their first report in 2020, their second report in 2021. The dedicated professionals in this team have carried out their work despite a global pandemic, and despite the refusal of the Assad regime to cooperate with them. And despite these obstacles, they have produced a detailed and thorough report. And I believe if you take a look at the report, they note that they have looked at 19,000 files, have witness statements of 66 witnesses, and have examined 70 chemical samples. It’s a very extensive report, it’s a very professional job, and I would say it was worth the wait.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that. We’d now like to go to one of our callers, Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya TV. Nadia, your line is open and you can go ahead and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for taking my question. My apology, I joined later, so I wasn’t quite sure if this was asked. But regardless, do you see the recent rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, the re-establishing of diplomatic relation might make it easier for Assad to escape accountability and whitewash his use of chemical weapons?
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Well, as I said before, of course it is the policy of the United States that we will not normalize relations with the Assad regime and we don’t support others doing so until there is irreversible progress toward a political resolution. It is also very firmly our policy and that of the vast majority of countries that are in the OPCW that one should hold those that use chemical weapons accountable.
This report in and of itself does not address all of the issues that you need to address in the context of holding regime members accountable, but it is part of a bigger structure. It is part of evidence gathering and building the confidence of the international community in its conclusions. And I think that it will eventually lead to more accountability. I might note that in a number of countries there have been criminal prosecutions and we might very well see more of those.
MODERATOR: And with that, let’s go back to our questions from the chat. Going back to Aya Sayed from Roayah News Network, who has the question: “Does the chemical signature of the attack prove the source of the chemical agent used?”
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay, thank you for that. That is a good question. And in fact, the IIT conducted a detailed and thorough analysis of the chemical signatures and brought in independent experts who worked separately to examine the data. And they conclusively demonstrate that the chlorine present at the attack site was not environmental and that the signatures identified could only be explained by the release of high concentrations of toxic chlorine from cylinders. This detailed analysis in fact provides a scientific basis to rule out those claims that somehow the attack was staged or that no chemical weapons attack occurred at all.
MODERATOR: And then just with a follow-up on that from Aya Sayed: “Was Russia involved in the attack? And how could you make sure that those weapons were not in the hands of rebels or other actors other than the Syrian regime?”
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay. Well, let’s take a look at both of those questions. I think what the IIT report tells you is that the Russian forces were collocated at the Douma Air Base alongside the Tiger Forces in the timeframe when the attack occurred and that the airspace over Douma was exclusively controlled by the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Aero Defense Forces. And subsequent to the attack, Russia has actively and consistently worked to try to shield the Assad regime from accountability for its chemical weapons use.
So I would say that at the very minimum, by extension Russia bears responsibility for these atrocities for shielding the Assad regime. And I would add that after the incident, Russian military police helped the Syrian regime obstruct OPCW inspectors from gaining access to the site and did attempt to clean up and sanitize the site. So I would say that we would very much call on the Russian Federation to stop these actions of shielding the Assad regime and to help us call to account those that use chemical weapons.
In terms of the question how do we ensure these weapons were not in the hands of rebels, the IIT did consider a possible range of scenarios and carefully tested their validity against the evidence that was gathered. And the facts are very clear: the cylinders were dropped from a helicopter and the Syrian Air Force was the – at that time the only ones operating helicopters in that area. The Syrian regime were the only party that had the motives to carry out this attack. They were in fact launching an offensive to try to take control of this suburb of Damascus. The airspace over Douma was controlled exclusively by the Syrian and Russian air forces. And of course the last point that the chemical attack in Douma is not an isolated incident. It’s part of a long history of Syria using chemical weapons.
But what I do want to underline here is the very logical and rigorous approach taken by the IIT. They did not start with one scenario. They started with a number of scenarios. They tested the evidence against them. They found no evidence for the alternate – to corroborate the alternate scenarios, like this was done by rebels or other actors. And they did find evidence that would corroborate the conclusion that this attack was carried out by the Syrian Arab Air Force from one of their helicopters.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that, sir. I’d like to turn it over now to one of our callers to ask a question live. Michel Ghandour from MBN, you can go ahead and ask your question.
QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you for doing this. My question is the UN Security Council states called on Syria regime to remove any obstacles and to cooperate fully with the OPCW and fulfill its international obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria didn’t comply in the past with the UN. What if it does not comply this time, too?
And second, will the earthquakes affect the U.S. policy towards the Syrian regime? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Well, let me take the earthquake issue first. The United States of course is supporting a number of humanitarian agencies that are providing relief from the earthquakes, but I cannot go into that further because it’s not my area of expertise so I would refer you to the State Department on the question of earthquake relief.
On the question, of course, of Syrian noncompliance, you know at the end of the day diplomacy is more a marathon and less a sprint, so we have to be willing to work on things on a medium and long term. And the United States and the international community are determined that the Assad regime should be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons. I outlined a number of places where we could do that work, including the United Nations, the OPCW, the Partnership against Impunity. We’re also supporting humanitarian and NGO groups that collect information and evidence, and these brave Syrians and international organizations are risking their lives to document regime abuses and to collect evidence. This is an ongoing process and we will not get tired of it.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. I believe we have time for one or two more questions. I’d like to turn over to the last question submitted by Aya Sayed about measures to be taken in the future. So the question is: “Will there be any measures taken against the Assad regime?”
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay. Well, this does indeed go to the question that we’ve discussed before, which is how do you hold someone accountable. And I do think that in different fora, in the Partnership against Impunity, in the OPCW and its Conference of States Parties, at the United Nations there will be continuing efforts to take the valuable information provided by this report and use it to hold the Assad regime liable.
In addition to these efforts at political accountability, of course there have been in some countries criminal prosecutions, and I expect that this will continue. So I can sum up by saying I think the United States is going to continue to press for accountability and it is very much our goal to drive the use of chemical weapons down to zero. And we will work with other responsible nations and organizations to hold the Assad regime to account. And the end goal here would be that the Assad regime must fully declare and destroy its chemical weapons program and meet its international obligations.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for that. I see that we have a follow-up question from Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya TV. Nadia, would you like to ask your question?
QUESTION: Sorry, yes, I was unmuting myself. I was going to follow up to my previous question about the role of Russia.
MODERATOR: Oops, Nadia, I believe that you have muted yourself. Can you unmute yourself?
QUESTION: Can you hear me now?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can.
QUESTION: Okay, great. I wanted to follow up on the role of Russia at the UN Security Council, particularly on the Assad regime. I think the ambassador alluded to that and the international responsibility, but often we see that Russia is using veto to protect the Assad regime. How significant do you think, as we go forward, this will be a significant factor maybe in the future considering what’s happening now? I know it’s not related to the earthquake, but there is sympathy, et cetera, that actually it will be a cover by the Russians for the Syrian regime in particular.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay, I’m not – sorry, I didn’t hear all of it quite clearly. I mean, my understanding is your question is about do we expect Russia will continue to shield the Assad regime. Is that the question?
AMBASSADOR MANSO: Okay. Yes, unfortunately, there is a history here where Russia has had a long relationship with the Assad regime, was clearly physically in the area when they conducted these attacks, and from the very beginning has worked to obstruct the OPCW and the international community from trying to establish the facts. I think one of the important things about this report is it very clearly demonstrates that the alternate Russian narrative simply has no basis in the evidence. There are no facts to support the Russian alternate narrative. On the contrary, there are ample facts to support the conclusion that it was the Syrian regime that conducted this attack. And I think we should use this report and the facts that they lay out to make the case to the international community and to the Russian Federation that the international community should hold the Assad regime accountable and that the Russian Federation should stop shielding them.
MODERATOR: Unfortunately, that’s all the time that we have for today. I would like to thank all of our journalists for their questions, and thank you, Ambassador Manso, for joining us. Before we close the call, I’d like to see if the ambassador has any final remarks for the group.
AMBASSADOR MANSO: I would just very briefly note that I would encourage all of you to actually look at the report. It is a very detailed document, and it shows how the team meticulously went through the existing evidence and used what is a very reliable means in terms of investigation of never relying on one type of evidence only to reach a conclusion, but to have various types of evidence whether it’s open-source, photographs, chemical samples, scientific analysis, or physical evidence that they corroborate each other and that when you have (inaudible) telling you that this is how something happened, that is the best way to reach a reasonable conclusion.
So it’s an impressive piece of work, and I would urge you not just to listen to me but to take a look at the report. And with that, thank you all very much.
MODERATOR: And thank you, Ambassador. Shortly we’ll send the audio recording of the briefing to all participating journalists and we’ll provide a transcript as soon as it’s available. We’d also love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us for another press briefing soon. This ends today’s briefing.
# # #