FILE PHOTO: The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pictured in The Hague, Netherlands, October 4, 2018. REUTERS
The global chemical weapons watchdog stripped Syria of its voting rights on Wednesday in an unprecedented punishment for poison gas attacks on civilians.
A majority of member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) backed the rebuke after a probe found Damascus carried out three attacks in 2017.
While the move is largely symbolic, it is the first time the Hague-based agency has meted out its maximum punishment to one of its members in the OPCW's quarter-century history.
Syria denies using chemical weapons, and warned the "very serious and dangerous" move would affect its work with the OPCW on eliminating its arsenal. Its ally Russia said it was a "black day" for the watchdog.
France introduced a motion on behalf of 46 countries including Britain and the United States to deprive Syria of its "rights and privileges" at the organisation, which Damascus joined in 2013.
The move came after an OPCW report last year found the Syrian air force used sarin and chlorine on the village of Lataminah in March 2017. Syria then failed to meet a 90-day deadline to declare the weapons used in the attack.
With a two-thirds majority required for the decision to pass, 87 countries voted in favour of the motion on Wednesday, 15 including Syria, Russia, China and Iran voted against, and 34 abstained.
- 'Strong message' -
Western powers hailed the decision, saying Syria had escaped punishment for the repeated use of chemical weapons during its decade-long civil war.
"The member states of the OPCW have sent a strong message: repeated use of chemical weapons by Syria is unacceptable for the international community," the French delegation to the watchdog said.
Britain said it was a "vital step to maintain the credibility of the Chemical Weapons Convention".
Syria's rights will remain suspended until member states decide that Damascus has fully declared all of its chemical weapons and weapons-making facilities, the motion says.
These include the right to vote in either the annual conference of all member states or the OPCW's executive council, to stand for election in the executive council, or to hold any office in the agency, it said.
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed in 2013 to join the OPCW and give up all chemical weapons, following a suspected sarin nerve gas attack that killed 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Syria said the punishment would have "serious effect on our cooperation" with the OPCW.
"This decision will have a catastrophic effect on the OPCW and will further politicise its work," Syria's OPCW ambassador Rania Alrifaiy said, saying the allegations against it were "fabricated and misleading".
She accused the United States, France and Britain of supporting "terrorist groups" with the move, adding: "Terrorists today are extremely happy and joyful."
- 'Black day' -
Damascus and Moscow, which has provided military aid to Assad since 2015, have previously accused Islamist extremists of faking chemical attacks.
Russia's OPCW ambassador Alexander Shulgin said the West was using the agency as a "political tool".
"Today we have a black day in the history of the OPCW. We are ashamed of what happened in this room," Shulgin said.
Syria and Russia have both strongly opposed new OPCW powers since 2018 that allow it to identify perpetrators. Its previous mandate only allowed it to say whether chemical attacks happened or not.
The OPCW and UN have however also repeatedly said that Syria has failed to clear up a series of unanswered questions about its declared chemical weapons facilities.
Moscow meanwhile also faces questions over chemical attacks on an ex-spy in the British city of Salisbury in 2018, and on opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Russia in 2020.
It denies all involvement.
The OPCW was created to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention and says it has helped destroy 97 percent of the world's chemical weapons stocks. It won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.