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– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
Syria Steps Up Removal of Chemicals

Daniel Horner

Syria has picked up the pace in removing its chemical weapons materials for overseas destruction and has sent about half of its stockpile out of the country, according to figures in a March 20 press release from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Syria had been under broad international pressure to speed up the effort. By the end of February, it had made four shipments, removing about 5 percent of its so-called Priority 1 chemicals and about 20 percent of the Priority 2 chemicals. Citing those figures, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, had accused Syria of “continu[ing] to drag its feet.” (See ACT, March 2014.)

Under a schedule set last November by the OPCW Executive Council, the Priority 1 materials were supposed to leave the country by Dec. 31. All other materials that are part of the overseas destruction program were to leave by Feb. 5. The rest of the approximately 1,300 metric tons of chemical agents that Syria declared is to be destroyed within the country.

The removal dates were set with an eye to a June 30 deadline for destruction of the chemical agents, which was established last September by the Executive Council and the UN Security Council. (See ACT, October 2013.)

According to the OPCW press release, more than one-third of the Priority 1 chemicals and more than 80 percent of the Priority 2 chemicals have been removed. Among the removed Priority 1 chemicals was all of the sulfur mustard that Syria had declared. It accounted for only about 20 metric tons, but, as the OPCW press release noted, it was the only unitary chemical warfare agent in Syria’s declared arsenal. That means it was the only element of the arsenal that did not have to be combined with other chemical components to be weapons usable.

The quickened pace of chemical removal came as Syria agreed in early March to a timetable that would bring all of the chemicals out of the country by late April.

Commenting on the March series of shipments, Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator of the joint mission of the OPCW and the United Nations to oversee the Syrian chemical removal and destruction effort, said in a March 20 statement that the joint mission “welcomes the momentum attained and encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to sustain the current pace.”

Thomas Countryman, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, also noted the removal of half of the Syrian chemicals, but said “that’s not good enough.” The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has all the equipment it needs and has run out of excuses,” Countryman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 26.

Syria is responsible for collecting the chemicals from sites across the country and bringing them to its Mediterranean port of Latakia. From there, an international convoy takes them away from Syria. Most of the Priority 1 chemicals eventually will be transferred to the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. vessel carrying two mobile units that will neutralize the chemicals while the ship is in international waters.

The rest of the Priority 1 chemicals are to be incinerated at a facility in the United Kingdom. The Priority 2 chemicals are to be destroyed at facilities in Finland and the United States under contracts that the OPCW awarded in February.

With regard to the schedule for destruction, Countryman said, “The international community continues to work toward the June 30 target date for the complete elimination of the program. While Syrian delays have placed that timeline in some danger, we continue to believe that [it] remain[s] achievable.”

The developments in Syria have taken place against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, which has pitted Russia against the United States and Europe. Because Russia, as a major ally of Syria, has a key role in the chemical disarmament effort, some observers have wondered about the effect of the Ukraine crisis on the removal and destruction operation in Syria.

In response to a question on that point at a March 20 briefing, a senior Obama administration official said that Russia is “deeply invested” in the Syria project because of “Russia’s own interest in seeing these weapons destroyed.”

A Russian official seemed to confirm that view in a March 31 e-mail to Arms Control Today. “As regards Russia’s position on elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, it remains without change: we actively contribute in various forms towards its early conclusion,” the official said. Russia’s involvement “is not a bargaining chip” in the country’s relationship with the United States and NATO, “but a practical manifestation of [Russia’s] support for Syria and multilateral institutions such as the OPCW and the UN,” he said.

The plan for Syrian chemical disarmament is based on a framework agreement negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last September.