“No Justice for Khan Sheikhoun,” by Aron Lund

On November 7—that’s tomorrow or tonight, depending on where you are—the UN Security Council will get together for a shouting match about the nerve gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun last April. A new UN-OPCW report has blamed that attack on Bashar al-Assad’s government, but, as you might expect, Russia does not agree.

The Century Foundation has just published my new report on what the UN says happened in Khan Sheikhoun and on Syria’s chemical weapons diplomacy, No Justice for Khan Sheikhoun.

In this report, I try to walk you through the main conclusions of the UN-OPCW’s Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, which are quite explosive. In a fascinating feat of investigative chemistry, OPCW scientists were in fact able to reverse-engineer the sarin nerve gas used in the attack, tracing the ingredients back to stockpiles held by the Syrian government in 2013—you know, the stockpiles that Americans and Russians agreed that Assad had to destroy.

To Western governments, this is as close to ironclad proof as you’re ever going to get that the Syrian government has both used chemical weapons, which is a war crime, and consistently broken its 2013 promises to disarm, and, also, that Russia is either actively complicit or completely useless in following up on its ally’s behavior.

To no one’s surprise, Russia doesn’t quite agree with that conclusion. Russian officials insinuate (and Syrian officials say) that it is a false flag operation, and Moscow has refused to change its mind even after the UN-OPCW investigation shot down most of the claims made by Russian and Syrian officials.

These disagreements now move into the UN Security Council, where Western nations seek some form of recognition of the report. They may also be looking for a punishment through sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would be in line with the agreement between the United States and Russia in 2013 and UN Security Resolution 2118, which stipulates that anyone who stores or uses chemical weapons in Syria will be hit with Chapter VII measures. Of course, Russia will accept nothing of the sort, dismissing the report completely.

As things stand, Moscow is threatening to shut down the UN investigations by vetoing a renewal of the investigators’ mandate when it expires on November 16. The Russians have already vetoed such an extension once (on October 24) but an extension proposal may of course come up again.

On the other side of the table, the United States and its allies are scrambling to figure out a way to save the UN-OPCW investigation while also pushing back against what they view as the abhorrent behavior of Moscow and Damascus. As a Plan B, they’re looking at ways to conjure up an alternative UN or OPCW body that could replace the current one and continue working to hold perpetrators of chemical attacks accountable.

They may find both of those things to be impossible. With its veto rights and a Syrian ally whose position is steadily improving, the Russians simply hold better cards.

In fact, Western priorities may also be changing subtly. Accountability remains the goal, but there seems to be a growing realization among American and European policymakers that Assad may still be in Damascus five, ten, or even twenty years from now. If he has in fact kept a stockpile of nerve gas, they need to figure out a practical way to deal with that.

Faced with this dilemma, many seem to want to continue down the current road of talks and inspections, even as they fume over Assad’s apparent noncompliance and hope for some form of accountability for the Khan Sheikhoun massacre and other attacks. Nonproliferation and disarmament tend to take precedence, however, and Western governments still want to keep Syria embedded in the OPCW’s system of inspections, because they see no other practical ways of keeping an eye on regime behavior, obstructing a restoration of old chemical weapons production lines, and preserving some faint hope of a full future disarmament.

It’s a tricky question, but it may also be an issue where new diplomatic options can open up as the war winds down. Yet for the victims in Khan Sheikhoun, justice is as far away as ever—and new attacks may follow.


Check out the report here, and for further reading, these links may also be of interest:

Comments (9)

Eugene said:

Why would Assad use Saran gas, to what advantage? At this stage of the conflict, it doesn’t make sense? Considering the reports, at least the ones prior to the latest condemnation, they question how this latest report could be made? Reverse engineered? From what? Up to now, there hasn’t been any real proof, other than what came from one sided write ups. It really seems to be a false flag operation, especially considering the present outcome of the failure to win this messy war. Who has the most to gain? Considering the present turmoil taking place within the surrounding countries, saving face, panic buttons being pushed, sore losers, instigators, but most of all, people sitting thousands of miles away, calling the shots, or as the saying in the U.S. goes, “this is a hail Mary pass”.

November 7th, 2017, 5:20 am


Don said:

I don’t know who did it, but I have read the skeptics. So were there casualties being sent to hospitals many miles away before the attack took place or at least much too quickly? Is the famous crater really consistent with it being a site where Sarin was dropped? Are there films of people ostensibly helping victims of Sarin or collecting evidence doing things that would get them killed if Sarin was present?

It would be nice if the two sides would get together and challenge each other’s claims, because mere assertions about who shot down whose claims just doesn’t cut it.

November 7th, 2017, 2:18 pm


David said:

The ‘accountability’ argument is in reality a stick to beat Syria with rather than a real-world issue. Surely the government of any reasonable size nation has the skills and resources to manufacture sarin or other nerve agents if it wants to. If Syria considered nerve gas as sufficiently important to its future security, couldn’t it just make some more?

Didn’t Iraq get beaten with a similar stick because USA and others claimed it couldn’t account for its ‘weapons of mass destruction’?

And what is the justification for concluding that ‘new attacks may follow’?

November 7th, 2017, 8:36 pm


Sue said:

Re: Why would Assad use chemical weapons at this stage in the conflict? Looking further back into the history of the father and son Assad dynastic regimes provides the answer. In 1982 Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, completely flattened the town of Hama, killing thousands of civilians in the process of quelling an insurgency by the Muslim Brotherhood. You are talking about a regime that has historically had no hesitation whatsoever in using mass violence as a disciplinary weapon to deter dissent. The regime is the entity with the “most to gain” by using mass violence to re-consolidate sovereignty and terrorise the Syrian people into submission. The international community has shown that it cannot be bothered about Syrian civilian deaths, Khan Sheikh Khoun is essentially a middle finger to an impotent international community from an increasingly confident regime that knows it can get away with mass violence and not pay the consequences.

November 8th, 2017, 7:04 am


stopzionist wars said:

This garbage by the criminal zionist tribe is to support the war that criminal zionist jewish tribe are making, destry them all now before they destroy you completely.

Early this morning November 7, Israeli Channel 10 news published a leaked diplomatic cable which had been sent to all Israeli ambassadors throughout the world concerning the chaotic events that unfolded over the weekend in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, which began with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s unexpected resignation after he was summoned to Riyadh by his Saudi-backers, and led to the Saudis announcing that Lebanon had “declared war” against the kingdom.
The classified embassy cable, written in Hebrew, constitutes the first formal evidence proving that the Saudis and Israelis are deliberately coordinating to escalate the situation in the Middle East.The explosive classified Israeli cable reveals the following:

On Sunday, just after Lebanese PM Hariri’s shocking resignation, Israel sent a cable to all of its embassies with the request that its diplomats do everything possible to ramp up diplomatic pressure against Hezbollah and Iran.
The cable urged support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
The cable stressed that Iran was engaged in “regional subversion”.
Israeli diplomats were urged to appeal to the “highest officials” within their host countries to attempt to expel Hezbollah from Lebanese government and politics.


You have no right to be in occupied palestine. You have to pack and go to jewish stagte New York.

November 8th, 2017, 9:35 am


Ghufran said:

So when was the welfare of Syrians important to any regional or world power ?
Syrians did not like the regime but most Syrians did not want the destruction of Syria. Justice will not be served, we said that in 2012, this war was preventable and could have been stopped years ago without all of the blood shed and destruction, look at the statements made by those who inflamed the situation at the expense of Syria and be ready to get nauseated, there are no innocent players in Syria. The regime had better friends and spoke with one voice, the anti regime forces were Islamist militias with multiple fathers and multiple personalities and their step dads did not provide and ran away when the temperature got hot.

November 22nd, 2017, 9:00 pm


Marko said:

“….OPCW scientists were in fact able to reverse-engineer the sarin nerve gas used in the attack, tracing the ingredients back to stockpiles held by the Syrian government in 2013 ”

And who was the last to have control of that massive stockpile ? That’s right , the United States Army.

This chemical signature business is transparently nothing more than a high-tech distraction , since it can’t possibly be used to assign blame for the KS incident. The finger of blame based on this “evidence” points as easily at the U.S. and its allies as it does at Assad.

February 11th, 2018, 3:29 am


Eugene said:

Just out of curiosity, but didn’t artillery shells turn up recently that bore German manufacture or U.S. manufacture on them? It certainly would preclude the Assad side from using such? I might add, who in the region has a cozy relationship with both countries, with the most to gain from using/providing to the so-called proxies playing good guys in this war?

February 11th, 2018, 7:24 pm


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