Chemical attack investigative team to start work next year

A new investigative team being set up to apportion blame for poison gas and nerve agent attacks in Syria will be ready to start work early next year, the chief of the global chemical weapons watchdog said Tuesday.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons voted in June to begin apportioning blame for attacks after Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution last November to extend the mandate of a joint UN-OPCW investigative team seeking to establish responsibility for a string of chemical attacks in Syria.

The joint team accused Syria of using chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015, and the nerve agent sarin in an attack in April 2017 in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed about 100 people. The UN-OPCW team also accused the Islamic State extremist group of using mustard gas twice in 2015 and 2016.

OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias said that a coordinator for the team has already been appointed and more experts and analysts are being hired.

"We are setting up the team of experts," Arias said, calling it a "small but very powerful team" with "high capacities that will be ready to start working in the first weeks of next year."

The organization's member states are meeting next week and must approve its annual budget, which also will cover the new team's work.

Arias said he was optimistic about the outcome of financial negotiations, "and I think that we'll have a budget for the organization."

The team, expected to comprise of about 10 to 12 investigators supported by experts and chemical inspectors who already work at the OPCW, will be able to look back at attacks for which the previous UN-OPCW team did not apportion blame.

One notorious allegation still being investigated by weapons inspectors is the suspected chemical attack in April in the Syrian town of Douma. An interim report said that weapons inspectors found "various chlorinated organic chemicals" at the site of the alleged Douma attack. Arias said that more samples are being studied to reach a final conclusion.

The OPCW made headlines last month when Dutch authorities revealed that they had foiled an alleged plot by Russian spies to hack into the organization's WiFi network using equipment stashed in the trunk of a rental car parked at a hotel next to the OPCW headquarters.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected the OPCW spying allegation, calling the hacking claim a "misunderstanding."

Arias said the alleged plot was not the first attempted hack.

"We have had attacks since the beginning of this year - cyberattacks," he said. "We take that very seriously. It is not my mission to investigate the origin but my mission is to protect the IT system of the organization where we have confidential information. We have adopted very serious measures to guarantee that the system is very well protected."