"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Removal of Syrian Chemicals Stalls

Daniel Horner

The effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons program made little visible progress in May as none of the chemical weapons materials remaining in Syria were shipped out of the country for destruction.

Also last month, a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigating allegations of chlorine attacks in Syria had to turn back from the site it was investigating and return to Damascus after it came under assault.

Under a schedule set last November by the OPCW Executive Council, the highest-priority chemicals among Syria’s declared stockpile of 1,300 metric tons were to be shipped out of the country by Dec. 31 for destruction elsewhere. Most lower-priority materials were to be out by Feb. 5, and Syria was to destroy the rest of the material domestically.

Syria, which is responsible for collecting the chemicals from sites across the country and bringing them to its Mediterranean port of Latakia, missed the Feb. 5 deadline and a new deadline of April 27. In the run-up to the latter date, Syria increased the flow of materials to Latakia, with the last shipment taking place April 24.

According to a May 23 report by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü to the Executive Council, 92.0 percent of the declared chemicals to be destroyed outside Syria have left the country. That figure comprises more than 96.5 percent of the highest-priority chemicals and 81.1 percent of lower-priority chemicals, the report said. That leaves about 100 metric tons to be removed and destroyed.

Syria also possessed approximately 120 metric tons of isopropanol, which it was to destroy domestically. The UN-OPCW joint mission overseeing the Syrian chemical disarmament mission said in a May 20 press release that this part of the effort had been completed.

Under a timetable set last September by the OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council, the Syrian chemical stockpile is to be destroyed by June 30. Once out of Syria, most of the highest-priority chemicals are to be handed over 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.

Under the agreed arrangements, the Cape Ray will not begin its work until all the chemicals are out of Syria. U.S. officials have indicated that the neutralization process is expected to take roughly two to three months.

Unofficial observers have said for months that the delays in removing the Syrian material are making the June 30 deadline increasingly unrealistic. In a May 23 letter delivering his monthly report on the Syrian chemical disarmament to the UN Security Council, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that “it is now evident” that “some activities” related to that effort will continue beyond June 30. That appears to be the most explicit official acknowledgment to date that the deadline will not be met.

Ban said he anticipated that the OPCW-UN joint mission would “continue its work for a finite period of time” beyond that date. During that period, “most” of the remaining weapons elimination activities should be completed, and “successor arrangements” can be put in place, he said.

According to Üzümcü’s report, the remaining Syrian chemical agents are at a single site near Damascus. Independent chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders, in a May 26 posting on his blog The Trench, identified the site as the Al Sin facility.

In his report, Ban said Syria “had long before informed the Joint Mission that it did not have full security control” at the remaining site because of the strong presence of the forces that have been battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the past three years. In late April, the Syrian authorities reported that the rebels had “expanded their presence in the area, rendering the remaining active storage facility inaccessible by road,” Ban said.

The joint mission provided funding for Syria to charter an aircraft to bring in supplies for completing the destruction of the isopropanol and “finaliz[ing] necessary preparations for the eventual transportation” of the other chemicals to Latakia, Ban said.

Meanwhile, a vehicle carrying an OPCW team to the Syrian town of Kafr Zita on May 27 to investigate allegations of chlorine use was struck by an improvised explosive device, the OPCW said in a May 28 press release adding details to its initial report the previous day. The people in that vehicle transferred to two other vehicles in the convoy, but those later were ambushed, the release said.

Ultimately, the team members were released following the “intervention of the main opposition group with whom the ceasefire and security arrangements had been negotiated,” the statement said. The team members, who are “safe and well,” returned to Damascus under Syrian government escort, the release said.

Kafr Zita is in rebel-held territory. The Syrian government and the rebels have charged each other with launching a chemical attack in the area in April.

The OPCW press release characterized the assault on its team as a “blatant attempt to prevent the facts [from] being brought to light,” but did not identify either side as the attacker.