Chemical Weapons Removed from Syria: But to Where?

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced today that the final consignment of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile has been removed. Operating under the oversight of the OPCW and the UN, the removal process involved over 30 countries and the European Union.

The Saga in Syria Might Not Be Over Yet

To date, about 86.5% of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stocks have been surrendered. Current projections keep the program on track to meet the April 30th deadline to remove all chemical weapons from Syrian territory. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has hailed recent shipments of chemical weapons, but has stressed the need for continued and accelerated removal of the declared stockpile.

Despite good news on the deadline front, recent allegations of further chemical weapons use inside Syria have raised questions as to whether Syrian President Assad is truly committed to ending his use of chemical weapons. Recent reports have claimed the Assad regime has targeted rebels with chlorine gas, a toxic poison not covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) given its numerous commercial and industrial usages, including pool chlorination. While possessing chlorine gas may not be a violation of the CWC, using the gas as a weapon is a violation of the spirit of the CWC, which defines a toxic chemical as: “Any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere.”

Meanwhile, one U.S. official, has hinted that undeclared weapons might remain in the hands of the Assad regime, while Russia and Assad suggest that rebel “extremists” are responsible for the chemical weapons use.  Another equally disconcerting possibility is that the regime used declared materials that had not yet been shipped.

UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2118, adopted on September 27, 2013, calls for “the expeditious destruction of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical weapons program,” but even before these most recent allegations came to light, a U.S. official had suggested that Syria may possess undeclared chemical weapons. Given the continued chaos, it is hard to say with certainty whether the Assad regime or rebel groups are responsible for the alleged chemical weapons usage, but the fact that chemical weapons may have  been used again in Syria is cause for concern.  The nature of the problem lies in who used the chemical weapons. If the regime used declared chemicals, Assad has clearly flouted Resolution 2118 and the numbers used to confirm total export of the program may not match the initial OPCW declaration. If, as the regime charges, rebel groups used chemical weapons, this would mean that Syrian chemical weapons are not properly secured or rebel groups have procured or produced chemical weapons. Either way, the Syrian civil war is getting worse.

Resolution 2118 is clear that Syria’s complete chemical weapons stockpile must be surrendered and destroyed—chemicals that should have already been declared are no exception. The OPCW Executive Council Decision on the Syrian chemical weapons program, which is included as an annex in Resolution 2118, calls for the “elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment” in Syria. It is difficult to come away with a looser interpretation.

If the Assad regime is attempting to maintain a chemical weapons stockpile or stockpile of munitions, it would be in violation of Resolution 2118, the OPCW Decision, and their stated commitments “not use, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons”. In response the United States and the European Union could lead the charge for further sanctions against the Assad regime, potentially increase assistance to rebel group, and/or even re-debate the use of force against Syria. Indeed, if the Assad regime is not in compliance with the Resolution, the United States may well attempt to circumvent Russian shielding of Assad under Chapter VII of the United Nations charter as stated by UNSC Resolution 2118.

The deadline for the removal of chemical weapons from Syria is the end of April, a date shifted from the initial early February goal. While various OPCW and US officials have expressed hope that Syria will meet this revised deadline, the presence or use of any undeclared stocks, including the use of chlorine gas, could further set back the process. Resolution 2118 is unambiguous. As a first step, any suspected chemical weapons use in Syria must be thoroughly investigated.

Disclaimer: This situation in Syria is rapidly evolving. This post reflects the most accurate public data available as of 1PM EST on April 22, 2014. Please check back for future updates on this matter.

Revisiting the Syrian Saga: The End is (Still) Nigh

Author’s note: Significant departures or shifts in timeline are bolded.

A revised plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons has been announced, though technical details remain to be negotiated with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The physical plan remains largely unchanged, but the original deadlines have been shifted back. The original plan called for most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed by the end of 2013 and the remainder to be removed by early February 2014.  Destruction of all materials was slated for June. This revision gives Syria until April to surrender their chemical stockpiles while maintaining the end-of-June deadline for their destruction.

The revised plan, like the original plan, will advance in four stages and will involve cooperation from at least six different countries: Denmark, Italy, Norway, Russia, Syria and the United States. Russian involvement does not seem to have been jeopardized by the crisis in Ukraine.

In the first stage, approximately five hundred metric tons of mustard gas and binary components for sarin nerve agent will be transported from storage facilities overland to the Port of Latakia on the northern part of Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Russia has offered assistance to Syria in completing this stage of the process. The new plan calls for this removal step to be completed by the end of April.

Ahmet Uzumcu, the Executive Director of the OPCW, correctly predicted that the security situation in Syria would cause delays, compounding the difficulties presented by Syria’s stonewalling. The new plan assumes the chemical weapons can be destroyed by the end of June as originally planned so long as they are removed by late April. To date, Syria has surrendered 29% of its chemical weapons material, and that figure will rise to 35% by March 9th. This includes 23% of Syria’s Priority 1 chemicals and 63% of its Priority 2 chemicals.

Second, the chemical weapons will be placed on vessels provided by Denmark and Norway and joined by a Russian naval escort. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “We will be ready to provide Russian navy ships to escort those vessels with toxic agents in order to provide the safety of this operation.”

These deliveries slowed during February after Syria missed its initial deadlines, but the new plan calls for accelerated deliveries throughout March and into April.

Third, the Danish and Norwegian vessels will transport the chemicals to the Italian cargo port of Gioia Tauro. The Italian Foreign Ministry has stressed that the weapons would not touch Italian soil, though locals remain wary of the incoming chemical weapons shipments. The weapons will then be loaded onto a Japanese-built roll-on/roll-off vessel that is part of the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force, the Cape Ray.  The vessel is being leased by the Navy’s Military Sea Lift Command.

Finally, The Cape Ray, which is currently anchored in Spain and awaiting deployment, will enter international waters and neutralize Syria’s arsenal using low-temperature hydrolysis. The ship has been equipped with the U.S. Army’s Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. After destroying the chemical weapons at sea, crews will store the byproducts until they can dispose of them at commercial ports which are being independently contracted by [private firms https:/www.opcw.org/news/article/opcw-receives-tenders-from-14-private-firms-to-destroy-syrian-commodity-chemicals-and-effluents] with the OPCW.

Fundamentally, the core elements of the original plan remain in place. Initially, the end-of-June deadline for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons was to be met by removing the entirety of the stockpile by February 6. Having missed that deadline, the new plan sets the end of April as the deadline for the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. Ten of the twelve chemical weapons storage sites are to be cleared by April 13th, and chemical weapons will be removed from the final two sites by April 30th. The United States will require at least 90 days to destroy the 500 metric tons of Syria’s most potent chemical weapons. Given the April 30 surrender deadline, it may be impossible to destroy all of them by late June. Yet, Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat leading the international effort, affirmed on March 4 that the June deadline remains attainable.

Syria’s delays in giving up its chemical weapons underscore the extent to which the OPCW is dependent on Syrian cooperation. Announcing the new plan, Uzumcu stated that, “The Syrian government has reaffirmed its commitment to implement the removal operations in a timely manner.” In order to secure the Syrian regime’s compliance, however, the United States and the other powers involved in this mission, especially Russia, must continue to press for prompt Syrian compliance with its obligations. The OPCW cannot go it alone.

Eleven Questions about the U.S.-Russia Framework to Rid Syria of Chemical Weapons

On September 14th, 2013, the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers announced an agreement to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. Later that day, Syria submitted its articles of accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  The Convention prohibits Member States from producing, stockpiling, stockpiling or using chemical weapons and sets out a 10-year time line for stockpile destruction.  The U.S.-Russian framework seeks to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile by early or mid 2014.

The U.S. has begun to talk about the timeline in the framework as goals rather than hard-and-fast deadlines.  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons must approve this framework agreement and the UN Security Council needs to pass a resolution requiring that Syria comply with the plan and establish an enforcement mechanism.

The U.S. and Russia have set forth an ambitious timeline to declare, verify, inspect, secure, manage and destroy Syria’s estimated 1,000 metric ton chemical weapons arsenal during an ongoing civil war.

This framework raises several questions, which he address in a detailed analysis over at the Center website here.

The Other Red Line: Chemical Weapons in Syria

For the past 19 months, Syria has been wracked with a devastating civil war between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and several rebel movements. Despite the devastation being visited on the people of Syria, global powers have refrained from intervening and have not been able to find a solution to the conflict. Some nations (read: Iran) are even assisting the al-Assad regime by providing weapons and advice to military forces on the ground.

This conflict has led to a debate in the U.S. concerning whether to arm the rebels and strengthen their ability to bring about regime change, a debate that has many differing views. Aside from this dissonance, there is one concern several parties hold in common. Syria possesses a large arsenal of chemical weapons posing great threat to the domestic population as well as to global security, either by terrorists gaining control of the weapons or the Syrian government using them to repel foreign attacks.

Syria has neither signed nor consented to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and has one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world. It is assumed the stockpile contains sarin and mustard agents and possibly VX nerve agents. The government is also believed to possess Scud-class missiles and SS-21 missiles capable of delivering these weapons. The locations of the stockpiles and their production facilities are unclear, but are said to be under control of the Syrian military. In late September, U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta indicated that some stockpiles were subject to “limited movement” to ensure their continued safety.

A major concern is that these chemical weapons could fall into the hands of groups who could use them to incite ‘terror,’ namely Hezbollah or al-Qaeda.

The Obama administration has acknowledged that chemical and biological weapons pose a great threat in the short-term. President Obama remarked on August 20th “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” and emphasized that such actions by the Assad regime would change U.S. strategy. A group of U.S. military planners has assembled in Jordan to help the Amman government monitor the chemical weapons threat, develop Jordanian military capabilities, and assist Syrian refugees.

The Syrian government reportedly has been using cluster bombs against citizens, an act condemned by Human Rights Watch. Although Syrian officials claim  their chemical weapons would never be used inside Syria, it’s easy to be skeptical.

A look back to Saddam’s era in the 1980’s recalls the use of mustard gas and other chemical weapons against the Kurdish population resulting in thousands of deaths. The Kurds sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and some participated in the guerrilla movement against the Iraqi regime, much like how the rebels in Syria are fighting against the Assad regime today.

To eliminate the threat or use of chemical weapons, most countries have signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention which entered into force in 1997 and now boasts 188 member nations. Syria is not party to the Convention.

The use of chemical weapons against a population is an egregious act with important international repercussions. Any use of chemical weapons, even by states not Party to the CWC, limits the effectiveness of the treaty. It is imperative that Syria join the Chemical Weapons Convention and refrain from the use of these weapons during the current conflict. Civil war or not, the use of chemical weapons against any population is abhorrent behavior for which there is no excuse.