THE HAGUE -- Syria and Russia face renewed pressure over allegations of chemical weapons use as member countries of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) met on Monday (November 30).
Member countries urged Moscow to "transparently" reveal the circumstances of the Novichok nerve agent poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
Navalny survived the poisoning in August in Tomsk, Siberia, thanks to state-of-the-art treatment in Germany. The Russian regime allowed his treatment abroad only after an international outcry.
Damascus meanwhile faced calls for sanctions after OPCW and United Nations (UN) investigators accused the Syrian regime of sarin attacks in 2017.
The regimes of Russia and Syria have repeatedly denied the accusations, alleging that Western powers have politicised the Hague-based OPCW.
Damascus failed to meet a 90-day deadline set in July to declare the weapons used in the attacks on the village of Lataminah and to reveal its remaining stocks, OPCW chief Fernando Arias said.
"The Syrian Arab Republic has not completed any of the measures," Arias told the meeting.
"Gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies" remained in Syria's account of its progress on its 2013 agreement to give up all chemical weapons following a suspected sarin attack that killed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he said.
The OPCW should "suspend the rights and privileges" of Syria for failing to meet the deadline, French Ambassador to the OPCW Luis Vassy said, adding that the proposal had backing from 43 states.
These would include Syria's voting rights in the OPCW, depriving it of a voice at a body where it has been deflecting allegations of toxic arms use for years.
Russia protecting Syrian atrocities
In an attempt to protect its ally, the Russian regime presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council in May 2019 that accused the OPCW of "politicisation" just before a new probe of chemical attacks in Syria.
The OPCW agreed in 2018 to set up a mechanism that would identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks, a move bitterly opposed by the governments of Russia and Syria.
The Russian proposal was aimed at keeping the OPCW in check as it pushes ahead with the investigation to uncover those behind chemical weapon use in Syria, said UN diplomats.
"What it's really about ... is the Russians trying to strangle the OPCW," said a diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The West pushed through the new investigative mechanism after OPCW reports confirmed chemical weapons use in Syria, as well as the use of a nerve agent in an attempt to assassinate Russian defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in March 2018. Skripal and his daughter survived, but an unrelated Englishwoman was killed.
In April 2018, the Russian-backed Syrian regime was accused of using chemical weapons on civilians in Douma, near Damascus, killing at least 40 people and hospitalising more than 500.
In an attempt to cover up the crime, the Kremlin and its Syrian ally blocked international inspectors to the area for two weeks while they sanitised the area. However, those attempts failed.
Moscow has even gone so far as to accuse volunteer humanitarian organisation Syria Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, of faking videos of chemical weapons attacks.
It has regularly made such accusations as part of a disinformation effort to deflect blame from Syria's chemical weapon use.
Also in April 2018, Dutch authorities accused four Russians of trying to hack into the OPCW's computer system.
The alleged agents from the GU (formerly GRU), a Russian military intelligence agency, used electronic equipment hidden in a car parked outside a nearby hotel, the Netherlands said. The Kremlin has not made the four men available for questioning.
Now, the Russian regime is under pressure again over the poisoning of Navalny, which the opposition politician and Western governments have blamed on the Kremlin.
The OPCW has confirmed traces of Novichok in samples taken from Navalny in hospital in Germany. He is still recovering in Germany but vows to return to Russia.
The OPCW is still in talks with Russian officials to send a fact-finding team to Russia to investigate the incident, said Arias.
In a joint statement, 55 countries including the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and many in Europe said they "condemn in the strongest possible terms" the attack on Navalny.
They urged the Russian regime "to assist... by disclosing in a swift and transparent manner the circumstances of this chemical weapons attack" on Russian territory.
Navalny's poisoning has put further strain on the already fragile Russian relationship with Western Europe.
In October, the European Union sanctioned several senior Russian officials over the poisoning, saying the Novichok attack could not have been carried out without the complicity of the Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and Defence Ministry and the office of President Vladimir Putin.