The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons voted overwhelmingly to strip Syria of its membership rights within the 193-nation body, meaning Damascus cannot cast votes or hold committee positions. Syria is the first country to be censured in this way in the OPCW’s history.
Eighty-seven countries approved the measure at a meeting in The Hague, with Russia — a key Syrian ally — and 14 others opposing. Thirty-four countries abstained. A two-thirds majority of voting member states was needed for passage.
The vote followed a pair of OPCW forensic investigations in the past year that officially linked the Syrian government to chemical attacks in 2017 and 2018. Those reports, which identified the specific military units responsible, concluded that Syria continued to use poison gas years after Damascus renounced the use of chemical weapons and surrendered the bulk of its weapons for destruction.
While Syria’s role in the attacks was previous confirmed by independent observers, Russia had successfully blocked both the OPCW and U.N. Security Council from punishing Assad.
The OPCW is investigating multiple reports of chemical attacks in Syria, while also seeking to compel Assad to account for parts of his weapons arsenal that were not destroyed in 2014.
“The penalties imposed today are a slap on the wrist compared to the magnitude of Syria’s egregious behavior,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, but “they send a strong signal that chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity.”
The outcome of the vote was not assured. Russia has aggressively fought previous attempts to censure Syria, while also promoting alternative narratives that blame Syrian rebels for carrying out the attacks. But Moscow’s credibility has been undermined by allegations that Russia used a chemical weapon to try to assassinate defectors or government critics, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Those attacks also are being probed by the OPCW.
“Russia has worn away its legitimacy at the OPCW through its own use of chemical weapons and its shielding of the Assad regime from accountability,” said Andrea Stricker, a nonproliferation researcher at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. Wednesday’s vote could signal that “penalties are ahead for Moscow” if it does not come clean about its own use of chemical weapons, she said.