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:/] 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.

Atomic Anxiety: Iranian Enrichment and Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East

The recent joint plan of action concluded between the P5 + 1 and Iran has met with mixed reviews both at home and abroad. States in the Middle East have been particularly vocal on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, leading some to suggest that any continued Iranian enrichment could yield a cascade of proliferation in the region. Since the P5 + 1 agreement came into effect, some have insisted that if a final deal allows even a very limited level of Iranian enrichment, countries throughout the region will be tempted to pursue nuclear weapons or a substantive nuclear energy program with enrichment and/or reprocessing capabilities. The evidence, however, suggests that such fears are unfounded.

Saudi Arabia has long been skeptical of international negotiations with Iran. Saudi leaders have enthusiastically supported the international sanctions aimed at Iran, and as a competing regional power, it is likely that they would not mind seeing Iran weighed down by continued sanctions. Other Gulf States share Saudi Arabia’s concern. Bahrain resents alleged Iranian interference in its internal affairs and opposes any negotiated settlement that might alleviate Iran’s economic woes. Abu Dhabi, the largest member of the United Arab Emirates, also opposes any sanctions relief, partly due to their own territorial dispute with Iran.

Of the states opposing the current deal, however, the first to receive a visit from a US leader was Israel, where Vice President Joe Biden discussed the Iranian nuclear program and a host of other issues with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Though Israel strongly opposed the initial P5 + 1 deal, its reaction following the announcement of the implementation agreement was somewhat muted. Saudi leaders similarly offered a tepid statement of support for the deal, but some in the ruling family have publicly criticized it. Saudi Arabia will receive a visit from President Obama in March designed in part to allay Saudi concerns. Though Saudi and Bahraini business leaders have also evinced skepticism of a thaw in relations with Iran, they appear ready to wait and see if a comprehensive nuclear deal can allay some of their concerns.

Middle Eastern states are not, however, unanimously united against the joint plan of action. Turkey, which has previously evinced wariness of the Iranian nuclear program, praised the agreement and offered “to provide every kind of support for the success of the process”. Oman hosted the secret US-Iranian talks that led to the breakthrough meetings in Geneva, and Dubai, which aims to bolster its trade with Iran, has welcomed the P5 + 1 agreement, putting it at odds with its fellow emirate, Abu Dhabi.

While these states have been more welcoming of the deal, it is clear that they support the diplomatic process partly because they fear the possibility of a nuclear Iran. While Iran’s neighbors generally feel threatened by the possibility of a nuclear Iran, the support for the pact—even if tepid in some states—suggests that a civil Iranian nuclear program with low levels of enrichment would not spark a new wave of nuclear proliferation.

When it comes to nuclear proliferation, not all states are created equal. Rather, when making the argument that an Iranian nuclear program, however limited, could lead to a cascade of proliferation, the three states most frequently identified as possible proliferators are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. Egypt, however, will need to cobble together a functioning government before it can explore enrichment. Turkey, which would be more capable of such an undertaking than Egypt, already hosts US nuclear bombs through NATO.

Saudi Arabia, it would seem, is the most likely of the three to seek nuclear weapons or a substantial enrichment program in response to continued Iranian enrichment. US security guarantees, which, as in the case of Turkey, sometimes come in the form of nuclear bombs but could just as easily rely upon conventional forces, will play an important role in dissuading these countries from pursuing dangerous and potentially destabilizing nuclear programs of their own. For the time being, ongoing diplomatic efforts have forestalled any such moves, and even though other states are clearly threatened by a hypothetical Iranian nuclear weapon, it is not clear that a limited degree of Iranian enrichment conducted under IAEA safeguards would yield proliferation in the region.

In addition, as Kingston Reif argues in his recent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists column, it is not at all clear why an agreement that verifiably puts Iran farther away from a bomb than at any time since it began enrichment will suddenly increase the incentives for other Middle Eastern states to start hedging.

The technical and managerial challenges associated with nuclear programs are daunting enough. As has been argued elsewhere, however, it would take a perfect storm—more than simply an Iranian nuclear weapon, let alone a restricted enrichment program—to provoke proliferation in any of the states considered above. The continued existence of a limited and closely monitored Iranian nuclear energy program and accompanying low-level uranium enrichment is thus unlikely to encourage proliferation in the region.

A Case for the Zero Option in Afghanistan

“After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counter-terrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.” –President Barack Obama, January 28, 2014

Why We (Still) Shouldn’t Worry About a Saudi-Pakistan Nuclear Transfer

In recent years, a number of analysts and former government officials have argued that Saudi Arabia would feel pressured into pursuing its own nuclear deterrent should Iran, a country that the Saudis view with contempt and fear, develop its own nuclear arsenal. In light of the Kingdom’s inability to domestically develop such a capability in a short amount of time, the concern was that Saudi Arabia would purchase a nuclear weapon from its long-time ally Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons program was partly financed by the Gulf kingdom.

Claiming this “conventional wisdom” was “wrong”, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) argued in its February 2013 report “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds a Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?” that a nuclear weapon transfer from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia was highly unlikely should Iran ever attain a nuclear weapon. Aside from the lack of hard evidence of any assurance from Pakistan that it would sell its weapons to Saudi Arabia, both countries would face significant disincentives to ever follow through with such a transaction.

On the Saudi side, it would face a harsh backlash from the international community. Saudi Arabia is a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory and its contravention of this treaty and the norm it encapsulates would likely cause many countries to issue far-reaching and damaging economic sanctions against the Gulf kingdom. The US-Saudi security relationship, upon which the country is so dependent for its military security, would also be nullified, and Israel might consider a reactionary strike against Saudi Arabia, similar to those against Iraq in 1981.

Pakistan would face a similar international backlash. Although it is not an NPT signatory, its actions as a nuclear weapons proliferator would also contravene accepted international proliferation norms and likely result in far-reaching economic sanctions. In light of Pakistan’s weak economy and political institutions, it would suffer considerably if such sanctions were issued.

Taken together, the CNAS report concludes that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have no incentive to pursue a nuclear weapons transaction in the event of Iranian weaponization.

Nine months later, doubts have been raised on this assessment following the publication of a BBC investigative report claiming that unnamed NATO sources confirm the existence of a Saudi-Pakistan nuclear agreement. In the report’s own words, Pakistani nuclear weapons “are now sitting ready for delivery” to the Gulf Kingdom.

Along with the “recent ‘rift’ between the US and Saudi Arabia and ambiguous statements from Saudi officials regarding the existence of this nuclear arrangement, the report has helped resurrect fears about the prospect of a Riyadh ready to go nuclear. Just yesterday, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal wrote with full confidence that, should Iran go nuclear (which he believes they will), “Saudi Arabia will move swiftly to acquire a nuclear deterrent from its clients in Islamabad.”

So, should we doubt the CNAS assessment of the situation? Will Saudi Arabia attain a nuclear weapon from Pakistan?

The answer to both questions is no. Even if the arrangement does exist, which the CNAS report originally doubted, the prospect of Pakistan transferring a nuclear weapon to Saudi Arabia any time soon is as slim as it was before.

Why? Because the array of disincentives facing both countries that the CNAS report identified in February still remain nine months later. If Riyadh purchased a weapon from Islamabad, both countries would still suffer from the damaging effects of the international backlash that would result. The costs continue to vastly outweigh the benefits.

Even if Iran attains a nuclear weapon and begins to act aggressively towards Saudi Arabia, it is not clear that a nuclear transfer would likely follow. While the Kingdom may seriously consider the acquisition of a nuclear weapon to defend itself in such a scenario, Pakistani incentives are unlikely to change. In comparison to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is not threatened by Iran or its ambitions in the wider Middle East. The benefits of selling a nuclear weapon would remain low in the face of high costs and so while Saudi Arabia may come to favor a transfer, Pakistan would likely refuse it.

Thus, the CNAS report’s overall assessment remains valid in light of these new findings. Regardless of whether a nuclear arrangement exists between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the likelihood of a nuclear transfer remains low for the foreseeable future. There are many justified fears concerning the potential consequences of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This just isn’t one of them.

The Saga Continues: Syria

In what quickly is becoming the real-life manifestation of the classic P. Diddy song, the situation in Syria swings from the cusp of war, to a major diplomatic breakthrough, and now on to uncertainty over the next stages.

First, let’s examine the status of the proposed U.S.-Russia framework to disarm Syria’s chemical arsenal:

  • Syria declared its chemical weapon and facilities. (October 24, 2013)
  • The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) completed site inspections of 21 of 23 facilities and continues destruction of mixing/filling/weaponizing equipment. (October 27, 2013)
  • OPCW completed and verified functional destruction of chemical weapons equipment. (October 31, 2013)
  • OPCW verified a 22nd site near Aleppo. (November 7, 2013)
  • OPCW Executive Council adopted a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons by June 30, 2014. The plan included the transportation of Syria’s arsenal outside of the country for destruction in the “safest and soonest manner.” (November 15, 2013)

At this stage, the OPCW has nearly entirely eliminated President Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future.  While questions exist regarding destroying the specific chemical agents, the ability of the Syrian regime to weaponize and use chemical weapons has nearly vanished.  This is a clear success for the framework and international moratorium against chemical weapons.

On November 18, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry stated at a press conference that the Department of State was evaluating two options for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. He did not give further details.

In the next days, newspapers began reporting that the two options under consideration are the use of mobile destruction technologies within Syria and/or at-sea destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal.  The U.S. Department of State and OPCW also stressed that they are still working with other States to review destruction options.

If the OPCW uses the mobile destruction technology that has been developed, the facilities would be operational within ten days of reaching their location.  This option allows for the weapons to be destroyed where they are currently stored and does not require shipment to another country.  The concern is the risks associated with carrying out the sensitive destruction process during an ongoing civil war.

The at-sea destruction option includes incineration or hydrolysis units placed on ships that will neutralize the precursor and chemical agents under European Union and American environmental safety standards.  Smaller scale at-sea destructions have been successful, most notably by Japan. OPCW would retain its verifying and inspecting role but it is unclear what nation/organization would provide the diplomatic status of the floating destruction location.

The major concerns about this approach are the necessity to ship the neutralized but still toxic chemical weapons to a port, opening the opportunity for the material to be stolen, “misplaced,” or captured.  Additionally, there are significant security and environmental concerns. Supporters of the plan stress that the chemicals will be neutralized to harmless salts and solids.

Regardless of which destruction options are undertaken, the major concern is funding the OPCW’s operations.  As of early November, OPCW had raised $13.5 million for its operations and that funding will run out by the end of November, according to a Reuters exclusive. Moving destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal offshore would certainly increase costs.  Some countries have agreed to provide security and logistical support for the transportation of Syria’s chemical weapons. They could be convinced to provide similar support for at-sea destruction.

Logistical challenges are not the only issues complicating the U.S.-Russian framework to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. On November 5th, CNN reported that U.S. officials were reviewing intelligence that Syria had not been entirely truthful with its chemical weapons declaration or entirely cooperative with the destruction protocol established by the OPCW Executive Council. U.S. officials have suggested that Syrian President Assad is likely to want to preserve some chemical weapons capacity as a hedge against his perceived threat from Israel.

It is important to note that both the OPCW Executive Council decision and United Nations Security Council resolution had strong and speedy enforcement mechanisms for Syria’s non-compliance.

It is clear that there are a number of nagging issues that need to be resolved to completely eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal but in less than two months the functional capacity of one of the world’s largest chemical arsenals has been dismantled. This success is worthy of international celebration.