UNITED NATIONS – The Syrian government of President Bashar Assad has been accused of using chemical weapons, barrel bombs and torture against its own people during a seven-year civil war.
On Monday, it took up the rotating presidency of the U.N.-backed Conference on Disarmament.
The move was met with outrage from Western governments, but there was little they could do to prevent Syria from taking over the world’s only permanent multilateral body for negotiating arms control agreements for four weeks.
The leadership structure was set up to prevent major powers dominating the forum, and with Syria following Switzerland in the alphabetical list of member states, the path was cleared for what the U.S. ambassador to the conference, Robert Wood, condemned as “one of the darkest days” in the forum’s history.
“The Damascus regime has neither the credibility nor moral authority to preside” over the group, he said on Twitter.
Matthew Rowland, the British ambassador to the organization, said it “deplores the fact that Syria will assume the presidency of the Conference on Disarmament, given the regime’s consistent and flagrant disregard of international nonproliferation and disarmament norms and agreements.”
The conference was created in 1979, and one of the most significant treaties it negotiated was the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production, stockpiling or use of chemical weapons.
Syria formally submitted to the convention in September 2013, less than a month after a sarin attack in Ghouta killed 1,400 people. Under a deal brokered by the United States and Russia, it surrendered stocks of chemical agents used in the production of sarin gas and other weapons, but subsequent attacks by the Syrian military hardened suspicions that it had not handed over its entire arsenal.
U.N. investigators said they had documented more than 30 chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government since the start of the civil war, including an attack with sarin-like agents in April 2017 that killed at least 83 people.
That attack prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to launch dozens of Tomahawk missiles against the Syrian military air base from which the attack was carried out.
Last month, the United States, in coordination with its European allies, carried out another round of airstrikes, after what it said was a chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held Damascus suburb.
Syria’s leadership of the disarmament group is unlikely to have much effect: The body has been unable to agree on a program of work for the past decade. But a presidency occupied by a government that has used chemical weapons against civilians is nonetheless a blow to the group’s public image.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, unveiling an agenda for disarmament in Geneva last week, acknowledged that he could do nothing to change Syria’s presidency of the conference.
The group is not a U.N. body, although it meets at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, but he expressed the hope it would not harm the group’s disarmament efforts.
Britain similarly acknowledged that it could do nothing to stop Syria’s presidency, as changing the conference’s rules would require consensus among all 65 members.
It pledged instead that it would “ensure the Syrian presidency cannot inflict damage on the work of the Conference of Disarmament and its subsidiary bodies.”