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Dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons programme: an early look at the prospects and obstacles

Under the supervision of international experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Syrian personnel began the process of dismantling the country’s chemical weapons (CW) program on Sunday 6 October 2013. However, analysts caution that serious obstacles lie ahead, and many remain sceptical at the prospects for a successful dismantling of the Syrian CW programme.

From chemical weapons attack to international agreement on dismantlement

© bunyos / Fotolia

© bunyos / Fotolia

Syria has been estimated to possess the largest chemical weapons programme in the Middle East and the fourth largest in the world. In a process expected to include everything from running over missile warheads with heavy vehicles to destroying production facilities using sledgehammers, explosives, and pouring concrete, the OPCW is now charged with overseeing the complete elimination of the programme by mid-2014.

The Syrian government’s acceptance of the initiative follows a major chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on 21 August 2013, and subsequent threats of punitive military strikes by the US and European powers who blamed President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for the attack. Syria later accepted an international agreement brokered by Russia and the US to dismantle its CW programme and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which officially entered into force for the country on 14 October 2013.

Prospects and obstacles

There is no shortage of analysts expressing scepticism at the prospects of success. Among the many unanswered questions are: will the regime ultimately fully comply with the plan of destroying all its CW stockpiles? Will militant opposition groups accept the process or will they constitute a security risk? Will large amounts of CW have to be brought outside Syria for destruction and is such a move even feasible? Will foreign troops be needed to protect the OPCW personnel, effectively requiring “boots on the ground”? Finally, if the process fails, is an American military attack (possibly jointly with European powers) once again imminent?

Just one week after the organisation began its work, the Director General of the OPCW, Ahmet Üzümcü, complained of “access problems” to chemical weapons sites in areas under rebel control. He was quoted as saying that some access roads “change hands from one day to another”, adding that the mission was “already challenging.”

The Chemical Weapons Treaty is no guarantee

The OPCW’s council is now scheduled to produce a timeline by 15 November, detailing a series of disarmament milestones and setting out a detailed plan for achieving full dismantlement by mid-2014. In advance of that, following the OPCW council decision, OPCW inspectors have to finish their inspection of all CW sites by late October 2013 and Syria is required to complete the destruction of its CW “production and mixing/filling equipment” no later than 1 November 2013.

The question remains what will happen if regime obstructionism or other obstacles cause the OPCW to fail in its mission. While Assad has now signed the CWC, the treaty’s sole enforcement mechanism is a referral back to the UN Security Council – where a Russian veto of punitive military action looms. “For all intents and purposes,” Yochi Dreazen commented on ForeignPolicy.com, “the treaty is toothless.”

Amidst all the complications surrounding its work, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 11 October 2013, “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons”. Director General Üzümcü commented a few days later that the award had come as, “a very big boost of morale” to the organisation’s inspectors in Syria who are, “working in very challenging circumstances in the field.” He applauded the Nobel committee’s recognition of not only the OPCW’s, “work of the past 16 years, but also the work that lies ahead, in Syria.”

For more background, see the Library Keysource “Ridding Syria of chemical weapons: the complications that lie ahead

About Martin E. Petersen

European Parliament Research Service

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