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Ridding Syria of chemical weapons: the complications that lie ahead

[last update 16/01/2014]

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) programme on Sunday 6 October 2013. The move 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 subsequently accepted an international agreement brokered by Russia and the US to dismantle its CW programme and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

As this Keysource shows, however, there is no shortage of analysts expressing scepticism at the prospects for a successful dismantling of the Syrian CW programme.

Eventually, on 7 January 2014, the removal of the first consignment of priority chemicals from the Syrian Authorities took place, as stated by an OPCW press release. In a later note, the Director-General of the OPCW Executive Council, Ahmet Üzümcü, noted that this movement has occurred after some delays in December because of “challenging circumstances and […] that Syria has now received “virtually all of the necessary logistical resources for the ground transportation” of priority chemicals to the port of Latakia for removal from Syria by maritime vessels and underlined the importance of maintaining progress.

International framework

© Vladislav Kochelaevs / Fotolia

© Vladislav Kochelaevs / Fotolia

Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons / Office of the Spokesperson, US Department of State, 14 September 2013.
The US-Russian agreement

Resolution 2118 / United Nations Security Council, 27 September 2013

Collection of official OPCW documents related to Syria / OPCW, updated regularly

OPCW’s daily bulletins on Syria can be found here.

Background

Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2013 / The Arms Control Association

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Destruction: It takes a Flotilla / Sharon Squassoni. Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 13, 2014
an update on profress so far and next steps to come.

Syria: An Inconvenient Truth, in: The Economist, December 14, 2013.
This article documents the progress to-date on the implementation of the agreement, and while not hiding the innumerable obstacles, concludes that much has been done in so little time.

EU Statements

European Parliament resolution of 12 September 2013 on the situation in Syria 2013/2819(RSP)
This resolution, “welcomes the proposal that Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal should be placed at the disposal of the international community with a view to having it destroyed as soon as possible.”

Statement by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on the adoption of the United Nations Security Council resolution on Syrian chemical weapons / EEAS, 28 September 2013

Statement by High Representative Catherine Ashton following the US-Russian agreement on chemical weapons in Syria / EEAS, 14 September 2013-10-14

Statement by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on the proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control / EEAS, 10 September 2013

Government assessments of the Syrian CW program

Intervention in Syria, / Ben Smith, Commons Library Standard Note, 28 August 2013:
Written before the deal on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, this report for the UK House of Commons includes an outline of the Syrian CW program.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Issues for Congress / Mary Beth D. Nikitin, Paul K. Kerr, Andrew Feickert, Congressional Research Service, 12 September 2013
This report from the Congressional Research Service includes background on the Syrian CW program.

Analysis

Syria: Wrong Way In, Long Way Out. But Who Cares? / David Chuter, ISIS Europe Blog, January 2014

The author anlyses the obstacles and delays of the disposing of Syrian Chemical Weapons and speculates on the reasons of an apparent lack of interest from international governments and public opinion on delays, suggesting it is due to the poor enthusiasm western powers show to go for a confrontaion with the Assad regime.

Disarming Syria / Jean Pascal Zanders, European Union Institute for Security Studies, 24 September 2013

This analysis discusses certain legal obstacles in the Chemical Weapons Convention, including prohibitions on transferring CW to another country, and the fact that CW destruction is the exclusive responsibility of the possessor state. It also discusses security and logistical challenges. It is further speculated that “the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] could conceivably create the framework for a multinational security force to safeguard Syria’s CW and offer protection to the verification and destruction activities.”

Syrian chemical plan faces multiple challenges / the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 27 September 2013
This analysis warns that, “portions of the Syrian programme would likely go undiscovered, even if the most rigorous inspection process were allowed to operate under the best conditions and with unlimited time.” Those details of the US-Russian deal which have been made public also fail to establish the full extent of the inspector’s access to certain background information on “procurement, production, logistics and military” dimensions of the program. Inspectors are also faced by logistical and security. Finally the analysis warns that, “Assad might relocate portions of the stockpile and critical production infrastructure so as to retain a secret capability.”

Syrian regime will exploit deal to aid its survival / Oxford Analytica, 17 September 2013
This analysis discusses some of the main obstacles that may complicate the dismantling of the Syrian chemical weapons program, in particular regime non-cooperation and opposition sabotage.

Complexities of Syrian weapons may foil Russian plan / Oxford Analytica, 12 September 2013
Written before the international agreement on dismantling the program, this analysis discusses some of the complication involved in carrying out such an agreement.

Syria Chemical Weapons Deal a Wakeup Call for Broader Action / Richard Weitz, World Politics Review, 17 September 2013
This article addresses uncertainty over different opposition groups’ reception of the US-Russian deal and warns that the ongoing fighting, “presents the risk that the chemical weapons could be accidentally or purposefully released.”

Weapons Inspections Don’t Look Like Syria / Paul McLeary, Defense News, 12 September 2013
According to this article, former chief UN weapons inspector and head of the Iraq Survey Group David Kay has estimated that the international community would have to send as many as 2,000 inspectors to Syria and that it would have to be up to Syrian government forces to both guard the inspectors and secure and guard the chemical sites. As for the OPCW, “never has the organization located, tagged, and disposed of chemical weapons in an active war zone, let along a chaotic civil war where multiple groups with varying loyalties and agendas violently jockey for power.”

Chemical Disarmament Hard Even in Peacetime / William J. Broad and C. J. Chivers, New York Times, 10 September 2013
In an early assessment, this New York Times article suggests that, “large numbers of foreign troops would almost certainly be needed to safeguard inspectors working in the midst of the civil war.

Distrust and Verify / The Economist, 14 September 2013
This article charges that the chemical weapons plan is “seductive” because it, “serves so many interests”, allowing all major parties to extract themselves from a bad situation brought about by Obama’s promise to intervene in Syria in case of CW use. Additionally, “the scope for Mr Assad to frustrate disarmament without ever rejecting it outright is almost infinite.”

The chemical weapons trail: Inside the mission to destroy Syria’s arsenal / Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, October 6, 2013
The Christian Science Monitor’s correspondent in Lebanon describes the political and security issues surrounding the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.

Syria’s chemical weapons: why it could take decades to destroy them / Peter Grier, Christian Science Monitor, 11 September 2013
This article compares the destruction of CW in Syria to the American experience with destroying its program, concluding that, “if the US experience is any guide, Syrian chemical weapons destruction could take years, or even decades”

Syria: Vetting the Chemical-Weapon Plan / Dina Esfandiary, the National Interest, September 12, 2013
Written before the arrival of OPCW inspectors in Syria, this article argues that even if all legal hurdles are overcome and inspectors start the process of dismantling the program, “they will be doing this in the middle of a war. A conflict involving many parties, with many agendas, some of whom would welcome the arrival of fresh targets.” Further, the plan faces logistical challenges and its timeframe might be too optimistic.

Destroying Syria’s chemical weapons / Ron G. Manley, Open Security, 6 October 2013
This article discusses the merits of moving all of Syria’s chemical weapons to a single location for destruction — or whether it is better to undertake their destruction at individual sites. It suggests that, “a mixture of these two options may provide the optimum solution.” It also discusses some relevant techniques for destruction.

New Syrian Weapons Disposal Plan: Send Them to Scandinavia / Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy, 9 October 2013
This article discusses the possibility of bringing chemical weapons outside of Syria for destruction. Under one plan, “international inspectors would likely destroy the most dangerous chemical weapons on-site in Syria. But the majority of chemical precursors, as well as nerve agents, would be transferred out of the country.” However, critics have raised concern.

There’s Almost No Chance Russia’s Plan for Syria’s Chemical Weapons Will Work / Yochi Dreazen, Foreign Policy, 10 September 2013
This article surveys the obstacles to the success of the process and warns, among other things, that, “Dozens of new facilities for destroying the weapons would have to be built from scratch or brought into the country from the U.S., and completing the job would potentially take a decade or more.”

How Assad Could Twist a Chemical Weapons Treaty to Keep His Poison Gas / Yochi Dreazen, Foreign Policy, 13 September 2013
Assessing the importance of Syria signing on for the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreeing to demolish its CW arsenal, this article argues that, “If Assad changes his mind or is caught cheating, the treaty’s sole enforcement mechanism is a referral back to the U.N. Security Council, where the chances of getting an agreement authorizing punitive measures against Damascus for its poor behavior are virtually non-existent. For all intents and purposes, the treaty is toothless.”

The six steps to ridding Syria of chemical weapons / Cheryl Rofer, The Globe and Mail, 11 September 2013:
This analysis argues that the demolition process would require both a ceasefire and a larger number of international troops to secure the CW sites.

How Much Will It Cost to Destroy Syria’s Chemical Weapons? / Ben Freeman and Faris Alikhan, The Atlantic, 16 September 2013
This article discusses the monetary costs of demolishing Syria’s CW.

Why Trust Syria’s Chemical-Weapons Pledge When It Already Proved It Will Deceive Inspectors? / Kurt Eichenwald, Vanity Fair, 16 September 2013
Recalling the history of Syria’s CW program, this article argues that, “when it comes to weapons of mass destruction and international agreements, Syria has been a liar, a cheat, and a games player. In fact, in just the last two years, the International Atomic Energy Association, after a lengthy investigation, declared that Assad was in noncompliance with its agreements”. It also suggests that Russia might assist Syria in covering up part of its CW program because some of its weapons might have been delivered by Russia.

The Syrian Chemical Weapons Agreement in Perspective / Paul Rogers, Oxford Research Group, Monthly Global Security Briefing, September 2013
A somewhat more optimistic analysis, this article argues that the attempt of the Syrian government over the past two years to collect chemical weapons in a smaller number of sites out of rebel control has made the program easier to dismantle than is usually suggested. Further aiding the process, “a higher proportion than expected of the chemical arsenal is in bulk form rather than as weaponised stocks ready for use.” The deal also has positive long-term implications, as, “signing up to the CWC means that a successor regime will have difficulty in acquiring CW stocks.”

The Russian-U.S. solution for Syria’s chemical weapons: ramifications for Israel / Yossi Alpher, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center, 26 September 2013
This report takes a look at the possible regional ramifications of the deal to destroy the Syrian CW program, in particular for Israel. It also argues that although possibly resulting in the, “removal by non-military means of Syria’s non-conventional threat and new momentum for the international community to impose controls on Iran’s nuclear programme”, the downside to the international agreement is that it, “appears to have strengthened a mafia-like regime in Damascus that has a proven propensity for both barbarity and cynical deception.

About Martin E. Petersen

European Parliament Research Service

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