“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Syria Meets Key Chemical Arms Deadline

Daniel Horner

Syria last month met one of the major deadlines for destroying its chemical arms program by “rendering…inoperable” its facilities for producing chemical weapons and for readying the weapons for use, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Oct. 31.

Under a plan issued by the OPCW Executive Council and endorsed by the UN Security Council in late September, Syria was to complete “the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing/filling equipment” by Nov. 1. Mixing and filling equipment is used to load chemical agents into munitions.

Government officials and independent experts welcomed the news, but added notes of caution.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the OPCW-UN team that is overseeing and verifying the Syrian chemical disarmament effort for “work[ing] with unprecedented speed to accomplish the first milestone in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons and reducing the possibility that they will ever be used again.” He emphasized that Syria must continue to comply with its obligations under the OPCW Executive Council and UN Security Council decisions.

Under the timetable of the OPCW-UN plan, Syria is to “complete the elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.” In Oct. 31 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that the United States “continue[s] to approach this process with [its] eyes wide open” and “expect[s] that the path ahead will not be smooth, given the unprecedented scope and timelines for the mission.” Nevertheless, the “positive developments” in the early stages of the process “confirm that [the mission’s] timely completion is achievable,” he said.

In a Nov. 1 e-mail to Arms Control Today, one expert summarized the progress to date by saying, “[S]o far[,] so good.” Charles Duelfer, who headed the Iraq Survey Group, the U.S.-led task force charged with coordinating the search for Iraqi nonconventional weapons after the 2003 invasion of that country, said that “Syria seems to be seeking to fulfill its obligations.” But he added that “[t]he paucity of details revealed leaves many questions unanswered.” Among those questions, he said, are, “What munitions were declared? What equipment was destroyed? Which equipment did Syria wish to retain?”

Syrian Holdings

Another important early deadline was the one for Syria’s submission of a comprehensive declaration of its chemical weapons program. Under the OPCW-UN timetable, the declaration, which is required by Article III of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), was due Oct. 27. Syria submitted the document Oct. 24, the OPCW said in an Oct. 27 press release. The document, which was not made public, includes a “general plan of destruction” for Syria’s chemical weapons, the OPCW said.

The OPCW is responsible for implementing the convention. Syria formally became a party to the CWC on Oct. 14, but was provisionally adhering to the treaty for a month before that.

In his Oct. 31 testimony, Countryman said the destruction plan was “informed by technical-level conversations among U.S. and Russian experts and the OPCW Technical Secretariat.” Russia and the United States “believe the plan to be feasible,” he said.

The OPCW Executive Council is to spell out detailed requirements, including intermediate milestones, for the destruction plan by Nov. 15.

In an Oct. 25 report to the Executive Council, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, citing information that Damascus had provided, said that Syria has “approximately 1,000” metric tons of Category 1 chemical weapons. Category 1 weapons are based on chemicals and precursors that pose a “high risk to the object and purpose” of the CWC. That category includes sulfur mustard and the nerve agents VX and sarin. Üzümcü’s report said the 1,000 metric tons were largely in the form of “binary chemical weapon precursors,” meaning that they had not been mixed as they would be when loaded into munitions for use. Precursor chemicals are easier to destroy and to transport than chemicals in the form of so-called live agents.

Separately, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Oct. 16 announced that he had appointed Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands as special coordinator of the OPCW-UN mission. Kaag had been working for the UN Development Programme.

The Question of Removal

Officials and independent analysts have consistently said that the mid-2014 deadline is ambitious, and some of them have said it is unfeasible unless the disarmament plan includes the removal of much of Syria’s chemical arsenal for destruction in other countries.

Article I of the CWC bans countries from “transfer[ring], directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone” or from “acquir[ing]” them. (See ACT, October 2013.) The September UN Security Council resolution, however, authorizes UN member states to “acquire, control, transport, transfer and destroy” Syrian chemical weapons “consistent with the objective of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to ensure the elimination of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical weapons programme in the soonest and safest manner.”

In an e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today last month, a U.S. official said the resolution provides sufficient legal authority for transfers of the weapons out of Syria because Article 103 of the UN Charter says that, “[i]n the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.”

In an Oct. 30 interview, Jean Pascal Zanders, a former research fellow with the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said he was not necessarily opposed to the idea of removal but was “concerned about the ease with which this proposal has taken root in Washington, with no one questioning the fundamentals.”

The September decision by the OPCW Executive Council does not include a reference to transfer or removal. If the council does not create an exception to Article I, which is a “pillar” of the CWC, Zanders said, “how is it possible for the Technical Secretariat to engage in scenarios in which it has no authorization?”

In an Oct. 31 posting on his blog, The Trench, Zanders wrote that one of the issues to be discussed at a Nov. 5 Executive Council meeting was “whether it is technically, logistically and legally feasible to move the [chemical weapons] inventory in part or wholly outside of Syria.”

Varying lists of countries, mostly made up of western European states, have been reported to be candidates for the role of receiving Syrian weapons. As of press time, however, none had publicly volunteered for that specific task. Zanders and Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, named Albania, Belgium, Denmark, and France as top contenders. Norway had been seen as a leading candidate, but in an Oct. 25 statement by its foreign ministry, it ruled itself out.

In an Oct. 25 interview, Walker said shipping the Syrian chemical weapons for destruction would be feasible because they are in the form of precursors and that doing so could increase the chances of meeting the mid-2014 deadline.

Most countries in western Europe have experience with handling toxic waste, but they also have environmental laws and established processes for obtaining permits, which can be time consuming, said Walker, a former House Armed Services Committee staffer and current member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. Norway’s Oct. 25 statement cited “time constraints and external factors, such as capacities [and] regulatory requirements” as reasons for declining.

Sending the chemicals to a less-developed country could raise issues of environmental justice by placing unfair environmental burdens on poorer populations, he said. Walker emphasized the need to adhere to sound environmental and public health practices in the destruction process, whether it takes place in Syria or elsewhere.