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.