Removal of all declared chemicals from Syria a major achievement

Earlier today the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced the removal of the last remaining consignment of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.

Despite the continued horror of the ongoing Syrian civil war, this is a remarkable and unprecedented achievement that involved the participation of over 30 countries and the European Union, According to the OPCW, "Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.” The declared arsenal of some 1,300 metric tons of substances included mustard gas and precursor chemicals for producing sarin and VX nerve agents.

The mission demonstrates that diplomacy remains an important tool for reducing WMD threats. As former Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar note in a statement hailing the removal, “Even with the tension and the erosion of trust between the United States and Russia, we must not lose sight of the critical areas where cooperation between our two countries remains essential for our security, including securing nuclear materials, preventing catastrophic terrorism and preventing nuclear proliferation by Iran and others."

The removal of Syria’s declared chemical arsenal - which was one of the two largest operational chemical weapons arsenals remaining in the world - and the verified destruction of declared production, mixing, and filling equipment and chemical weapon delivery vehicles is also a major step toward protecting the Syrian people and other states in the region from large-scale chemical weapons attacks.

Israel in particular has expressed its gratitude for the mission and stopped distributing gas mask to its citizens as early as last January. The main rationale for Syria's chemical weapons was as a deterrent to Israel. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s rampage through Syria and Iraq is even more reason to be thankful for the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons.

For more on the implications of the the removal and why it has more effectively reduced the threat from Syria’s chemical weapons than the alternative of punitive cruise missile strikes, see my most recent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists column here.

While all of the declared chemicals have been removed from Syria, more work remains to be done. Challenges remain, including concerns about undeclared chemicals and Syria's apparent use of chlorine in barrel bombs (a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention) should not be ignored.

OPCW officials have visited Damascus in recent weeks in an attempt to clear up alleged omissions and discrepancies in Syria's declaration of its chemical holdings and is hopeful for a quick and successful resolution to the issue. Allegations of additional chemical attacks inside Syria raise questions as to whether Assad is truly committed to ending his use of the weapons - though rockets and missiles armed with sarin warheads (which have been eliminated) are far more deadly than rudimentary chlorine barrel bombs.

Another question regards the prospects for the speedy disposal of the removed chemicals (the OPCW says this process could be achieved in four months). Stay tuned to the blog for a post later today on some of the challenges associated with disposing of the chemicals now that they have been removed from the country.