What Does Alleged Israeli Airstrike at Chemical Weapons Facility in Syria Say About UN?

A Soldier Stands As a Crane Lifts Wreckage of a Residential Building Following an Air Strike in Which Hezbollah Member Samir Kuntar was Killed in the South of Jaramana City, Damascus Countryside, Syria, 20 December 2015. Photo by Youssef Badawi/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

Israeli air force allegedly bombed a facility in northern Syria, which is said to stockpile chemical weapons and missiles. The air strike was conducted in the early hours of Thursday and it came less than a day after the latest UN report concluding that the Syrian government forces were responsible for sarin gas attack in Khan Shaykhun in April 2017, which killed over 80 people, mostly women and children.

While there has been no official statement from the Israeli army about the event, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, general Amos Yadlin, said the strike had showed that Israel “intended to enforce its red lines despite the fact that the great powers were ignoring them”, probably referring to the lack of substantial response to chemical attacks seen both from Obama’s and Trump’s admionistration.

“The factory that was targeted in Masyaf produces the chemical weapons and barrel bombs that have killed thousands of Syrian civilians,” he tweeted, adding that Israel won’t allow for empowerment and production of strategic arms. Yadlin also noted that Russian presence in Syria obviously did not prevent Israel from conducting airsrikes.

“If the attack was conducted by Israel, it would be a commendable and moral action by Israel against the slaughter in Syria,” he said, warning that there may be “Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah response” and opposition from Russia.

The Syrian Army confirmed the strike on military site near Masyaf, adding that two army personnel were killed. In a statement carried by the Syrian Arab News Agency, Syrian Army accused Israel of aiding the Islamic State jihadists, describing the latest attack as “a desperate attempt to raise the collapsed morale” of ISIS after their numerous territorial losses in several separate offensives in the country.

“It affirms the direct support provided by the Israeli entity to the ISIS and other terrorist organizations,” the Army Command said in a statement, warning there could be “dangerous repercussions” for such “hostile acts”.

Times of Israel carried unconfirmed Lebanese reports saying that Israeli air force also struck a convoy belonging to the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to Israel Radio reports, some of the weapons destroyed in the attack in Syria included “chemical-tipped missiles that were to be delivered to Hezbollah”.

According to Times of Israel, the targeted location seems to be Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS) in northern Hama province, which is said to produce and stockpile chemical weapons. The news site wrote about the facility in 2014, when a senior member of the Syrian opposition told TOI reporter that “Assad’s forces were stockpiling chemical substances and missiles carrying chemical warheads at the site”. Recently, Syrian opposition claimed Syrian and Iranian specialists conducted joint projects aimed at production of chemical weapons.

Similar concerns about CERS activities prompted Western countries to put the institution under various sanctions, latest slapped by the US following the chemical attack in Khan Shekhoun.

The missiles that hit a Hezbollah arms depot near Damascus, Syria, were allegedly fired by Israeli jets flying inside the air space of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, 28 April 2017. Photo: Abir Sultan/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Although Israel mostly stayed at the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, it has carefully followed the developments on the battlefield, occasionally addressing its own security concerns – by carrying out the airstrikes targeting old foe Hezbollah’s weapon convoys, as well as advanced weapons systems delivered to Damascus by Russia and Iran.

The Israeli military usually refuses to confirm or deny its involvement in these operations, but former air force chief Amir Eshel recently did confirm that Israel bombed over 100 targets in Syria over the past five years. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has continuously warned that Hezbollah and its patron state Iran have been building a stronghold in Syria for future conflicts with Israel.

CERS hasn’t been on the list of sites inspected by the international watchdog, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which recently published a report concluding that the improved security conditions in Syria would allow them to destroy the two remaining facilities where chemical weapons had been produced.

UN: Syria Responsible for Khan Sheikhoun Gas Attack

The alleged Israeli air strike comes less than a day after UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria presented a report saying that Syrian government was responsible for chemical attack in rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017.

The report says that Syrian air forces also targeted medical facilities throughout the area, rendering them unable to help victims of the sarin attack, leading to greater number of casualties. UN also claims that Syrian forces used weaponized chlorine in rebel-held areas in Idlib, Hamah, eastern Ghouta, and Damascus.

A handout photo made available by the opposition Idlib Media Center on 04 April 2017 showing what is said to be a child receiving treatment at a field hospital after a chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north Idlib province, which killed 80 people, mostly women and children. Photo by IDLIB MEDIA CENTER HANDOUT/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

“The parties to this horrific conflict must fundamentally realign their tactics with basic notions of humanity, and the international community must reinvigorate its commitment to meaningful justice and accountability for all perpetrators of crimes, if we are to see a significant shift away from Machiavellian disregard for the interests of the Syrian people and the progress towards alleviating the suffering of civilians”, said Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Commission.

The commission also reported on crimes committed by terrorist groups Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State, through car and suicide bombings, the use of snipers and hostage-taking. It also noted that the US-led coalition did not take all necessary precautions to prevent civilian victims in offensive against ISIS in Raqqa and surrounding area.

“A number of local truces, including the so called “Four Towns Agreement”, incorporated evacuation agreements which resulted in the forced displacement of civilians, a war crime. Many of those displaced now subsist under inadequate living conditions and lack of access to healthcare”, the report said.

UN’s Role – A Disappointment?

Despite UN’s regular reports on atrocities in Syria, many critics note the international body did little to alleviate the suffering of Syrian people or take responsibility for the ‘greater picture’ in regional conflicts. Similar concerns have been voiced on numerous occasions by one of the members of UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Carla del Ponte, who finally resigned in August. “I have no power as long as the Security Council does nothing. We are powerless, there is no justice for Syria,” she said, adding that everyone in Syrian conflict was “on the bad side”. “The Assad government has perpetrated horrible crimes against humanity and used chemical weapons. And the opposition is now made up of extremists and terrorists,” she concluded.

A few days ago, UN Human Rights Office slammed UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for similar lack of substantial action in Yemen, after UNHRC once again voted in favor of Gulf states’ proposal that investigation of human rights violations in Yemen Civil War be conducted by the country’s government, instead of the UN.

Carla del Ponte resigned as a member of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Photo by MARTIAL TREZZINI/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

“The perceived partiality of the National Commission and its limited access have prevented it from executing its mandate comprehensively,” The UN Human Rights Office’s head in Yemen, Mohammad Ali Alnsour said. “In addition… (it) appears to be lacking any instrument, or mandate, that would enable it to channel its findings into a credible accountability mechanism.”

Things do not get any better at UN Security Council (UNSC), where any attempt at passing resolutions directed at Syria is vetoed by its permanent member and Syrian government’s ally, Russia. In August, Russia vetoed resolution condemning Khan Shekhoun chemical weapons attack, making it the eighth time it used its privilege to defend Bashar al-Assad.

Russia extended its support to its wider Middle Eastern alliance which now includes Iran, and by extension Hezbollah, by threatening to veto UNSC resolution to renew the mandate of the UN peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL). Last week, UNSC agreed on draft resolution that extended the mandate of UNIFIL, but also gave its forces widened powers to address Hezbollah’s weapons buildup in the area, with authority to oversee activities in the area and even enter the villages where Hezbollah operates.

However, during the negotiations over the wording of the resolution, the United States and Israel reference to Hezbollah as conducting prohibited military activity in southern Lebanon was omitted – thanks to the Russian intervention, Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

UN soldiers from the peacekeeping force in the Lebanon on duty next to the Israeli defense and surveillance establishment near Hanita settlement during a tour organized by the Hezbollah media office at the Lebanese Israeli border, 20 April 2017. Photo by NABIL MOUNZER/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

The current position of UNIFIL speaks about UN’s enforcing powers on its own – the forces intended to protect the buffer zone are often barred by Hezbollah from entering certain areas or even forced to retreat to Israeli territory. Despite this obvious impediment to gathering relevant information and enforcing international law, UNIFIL commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Beary confidently claimed in The Associated Press interview “there was no evidence of the arms traffic and stockpiling…in Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon”. US envoy to UN, Nikki Haley said Beary was blind to a “massive flow of illegal weapons.”

Recent defeats of ISIS on several fronts in Syria, including the ones bordering with Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, might be a good thing – but they leave behind a vacuum that is promptly filled with Hezbollah and Iran. UN’s obvious inability to deal with any situation that requires more than taking a moral high ground through dozens of ultimately useless, unenforceable reports and resolutions in time led to the body’s compliance with Bashar al-Assad’s interests and plans.

UN Security Council has become a Russian playground for enforcing its regional interests, and the United States, despite Nikki Haley’s sassy rhetoric, have long been absent from any important conversation about Syrian future.

Israel’s alleged airstrike may be an attempt at managing its own security interests, but the timing of the attack should also be a message to the United Nations – to reconsider its increasingly dubious and obsolete role in the world of politics.

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