UNITED NATIONS — Russia's U.N. ambassador warned Monday that a British-led attempt to beef up the global chemical weapons watchdog, including giving it the job of determining blame for chemical attacks, is "dangerous" and could hurt peace efforts in Syria.
Vassily Nebenzia told The Associated Press he hopes supporters of the effort will realize they are undermining The Hague, Netherlands-based watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as well as encroaching on the "province of the Security Council."
Nebenzia, who is president of the Security Council this month, said he raised the issue in closed consultations Monday and planned to do so again because there was interest in continuing the discussion.
The watchdog's Executive Council announced last week that a special session of the 192 parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention will take place June 26-27 following a request by more than the required 64 state parties.
British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson announced the move to convene a special session last month, saying it was "in response to shocking recent chemical attacks," including those in the English city of Salisbury, in Syria's civil war, and by the Islamic State group in Iraq. Britain has accused Russia of using a nerve agent in the attempted assassination in March in Salisbury of former spy Sergei Skripal, which Moscow denies.
The OPCW currently has a mandate to carry out investigations to determine only if chemical weapons have been used — but not to determine responsibility.
The Security Council established a joint U.N.-OPCW investigative team to determine responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. But Russia vetoed a Western-backed resolution in November that would have renewed the joint team's mandate and efforts since them to replace it have failed, making accountability exceedingly difficult.
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 aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others. The latter attack led to a U.S. airstrike on a Syrian airfield.
The team also accused the Islamic State extremist group of using mustard gas twice in 2015 and 2016.
Nebenzia was sharply critical of the team's investigative methods at the time and said it "became a puppet in the hands of anti-Damascus forces."
OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu has indicated support for having his agency determine responsibility for chemical attacks. He was quoted as telling London's Chatham House think tank last month: "Today there might be good reasons actually to clarify the role of the OPCW itself in terms of attribution once it has the necessary information at its disposal. Willful defiance of a valued norm should not be allowed to go unchallenged."
Nebenzia on Monday adamantly opposed any OPCW action at the special session.
"This is a very dangerous development — institutional and political — and that may seriously affect the Syrian political process if they succeed in their plans," he warned.
"This is wrong because the only body that can authorize attribution is the Security Council — not the OPCW as an organization nor the Chemical Weapons Convention provide for this," the ambassador told the AP. "So that means we have to reopen the Chemical Weapons convention at least, and secondly this is not an organization that is entrusted or equipped to do attribution."
A council diplomat, who agreed to discuss what was said in the private council session only if not quoted by name, said the United States responded that it was ironic Russia raised the issue since it blocked all attempts by the Security Council to establish an attribution mechanism in Syria.
U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura is currently trying to revive negotiations to end the Syrian conflict, now in its eighth year. In recent weeks, the Syrian government and its allies have made considerable military gains, including bringing the entire capital and its suburbs under full government control for the first time since the war began in 2011.