Questions on Syrian Chemical Arms Persist

This article is an ACT Web Extra. It was posted on July 23, 2014, and does not appear in the print or PDF version of the July/August 2014 Arms Control Today.

Daniel Horner

Efforts to resolve several issues arising from Syria’s chemical weapons program appear to be moving slowly, even as the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons material aboard a U.S. ship in the Mediterranean Sea began this month.

Officials from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and some of its key member states have highlighted the need for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons production facilities and resolve questions about its declaration of its arsenal last year.

For months, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, has been castigating Syria for its failure to destroy its 12 remaining former chemical weapons production facilities. Destruction of such facilities is a required step under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria joined last fall. Under a timetable for chemical weapons destruction approved by the OPCW Executive Council last November, that task was to be completed by March 15.

According to statements by Mikulak and others, Syria wants to convert the 12 facilities—seven above-ground hangars and five underground facilities—to other uses rather than destroying them. The CWC allows countries to do so, with the approval of their fellow CWC parties.  

In his statement on the first day of the council’s July 8-11 meeting, Mikulak said the OPCW Technical Secretariat had presented a “compromise proposal” on Syrian facility destruction at a meeting in Moscow in late June attended by officials from Russia, the United States, the OPCW-UN joint mission, and the secretariat. Last September, following the threat of U.S. airstrikes on Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, the United States and Russia, which is a long-standing ally of Syria, crafted a framework agreement for the removal and destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal. The OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council subsequently endorsed the approach outlined in the agreement.

A May 9 Bloomberg article quoted Sigrid Kaag, the head of the joint OPCW-UN mission overseeing the removal of chemical weapons material from Syria, as saying that the production facilities are in a system of tunnels that “are part of a whole complex network of military facilities.” Therefore, she said, “what you destroy, and to what extent you destroy, has [an] impact on the rest of the military installation—which [the Syrians] don’t have to destroy.”

Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent chemical weapons expert, has described the five underground structures as having the shape of a staple. In these structures, one of the “arms” is the production facility, with the rest of each structure having been declared by Syria as a chemical weapons storage facility, Zanders said in a May 26 posting on his blog The Trench. He noted that the CWC requires parties to declare but not necessarily destroy chemical weapons storage facilities. In the Syrian case, however, the United States and other Western countries have “argued that the storage areas form an integral part of the production site, and that therefore Syria’s circumscription of the [production facilities] is incomplete,” Zanders said.

A June 7 OPCW press release said Syria had “agreed to the methodology for destroying [the] hangars” but that “further work is needed regarding the underground structures.”

Russia, Syria, the United States, and other CWC parties, which have been discussing destruction procedures since last December, recognize that trying to preserve certain portions of these buried facilities could incur costs “well into the millions of dollars,” Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability with Green Cross International, said in a July 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today. It is not clear who would cover those costs, said Walker, who is a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.

In his July 8 remarks, Mikulak said the proposed compromise “would involve acceptance by all parties of revised tunnel perimeters and would also entail more effective monitoring measures.”

In a recent e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today, a Russian official said Mikulak’s reference to revised tunnel perimeters deals with the Syrian argument to the OPCW that only the parts of the facilities that were used or designed to be used for producing chemical weapons should be considered as production facilities and therefore subject to the CWC requirement for destruction, with the other parts allowed to remain intact as long as they are used for purposes that the CWC does not ban. Although this “caused [an] uproar in certain circles,” the revised perimeters are part of the compromise proposal, the Russian official said.

With regard to the more effective monitoring measures cited in Mikulak’s statement, the Russian official noted that the CWC’s annex on verification says that once the OPCW has confirmed that a party has destroyed its production facilities, the organization “shall terminate the systematic verification of the chemical weapons production facility.” Nevertheless, as part of the compromise, Syria “voluntarily accepted certain confidence building measures relating to the destruction of its [production facilities], in addition to verification measures specified in the CWC,” the official said.

The official emphasized that the Syrian production facilities now are “empty shells” because the relevant equipment has been destroyed.

Walker, who is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, said that the OPCW has conducted occasional on-site inspections of production facilities that were converted to other uses.

In his July 8 statement to the OPCW Executive Council, Mikulak said the current proposal “requires serious compromises and is not entirely in keeping with the extraordinary decision [the Executive] Council took in September.” Nevertheless, he said, “the United States is prepared to support that compromise solution in the interests of reaching a Council decision this week, as long as Syria also accepts it.” If Syria rejects the compromise, “there must be consequences,” he said.

The OPCW did not issue a public statement at the end of the Executive Council meeting, and a U.S. State Department official confirmed in a July 14 e-mail to Arms Control Today that there was “nothing to announce.” The official declined to provide further details on the proposal or on the status of the discussions on it.

The Russian official described the situation as “very fluid,” saying that “[t]he deal may be approved very soon by the [Executive Council], and conversely it may dissipate if one loses touch with reality.”

Doubts About Declaration

The “gaps, discrepancies, and inconsistencies,” as Mikulak put it, in Syria’s declaration of its chemical arsenal are another area that has been cited as a concern. According to a July 4 report to the Executive Council by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, the organization’s secretariat and the Syrian government are “undertaking technical discussions” that are “seeking clarifications with regard to the declaration.”

In his May 26 blog post, Zanders wrote that a key issue is the claim by Damascus that it destroyed approximately 200 metric tons of sulfur mustard in March 2013, about six months before it joined the CWC.

Syria’s declaration of its stockpile included roughly 20 metric tons of sulfur mustard, the only part of the declared stockpile that is in weapons-usable form. Chemical weapons precursors made up the rest.

According to Zanders’ blog post, the Syrians have given details to the OPCW on the March 2013 destruction activities, and the organization’s inspectors have to verify the information in view of the circumstances under which Syria acceded to the CWC.  “Inevitably, the episode has raised concerns among some OPCW members about possible undeclared ‘weaponised’ nerve agents,” he wrote.

In a June 26 e-mail, the Russian official appeared to confirm that the sulfur mustard destruction was at issue, but defended Syria’s actions. “[F]ormally speaking Syria does not have to account for” that destruction because it took place before Damascus became a party to the CWC, he wrote. Nevertheless, “in the interests of transparency and building confidence Damascus may find it appropriate to explain to the [OPCW] Technical Secretariat the circumstances relating to that,” he said. Walker noted that a country’s CWC declaration of its chemical weapons program is supposed to include a history dating back to 1946.

On the broader issue of the need to update the original Syrian declaration, the Russian official said, “Some technical hiccups may be present due to the fact that under the prevailing circumstances Syria simply had not had sufficient time to meticulously prepare its initial declaration. Damascus is cooperating with the OPCW in sorting out this technical stuff and such things should not be blown out of proportion.”

Under the expedited schedule of the OPCW-UN plan, Syria, which is in the fourth year of a civil war, had considerably less time to declare its chemical arsenal than countries normally do when they join the CWC.

At a July 10 conference at the State Department, Laura Holgate, senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction at the U.S. National Security Council, said there were “discrepancies between our knowledge of the Syrian [chemical weapons] program and the declaration submitted by the Syrian government.” Although some of the differences “could be explainable by the speed with which Syria was required to submit its declaration, compared to the years that most countries take to prepare their own CWC submissions,” there are “other, less benign explanations,” she said. “Our concerns include accountancy of materials, undeclared agents and munitions, undeclared sites, and programmatic inconsistencies.”

Claims of Chlorine Attacks

The OPCW also is investigating allegations of weapons use of chlorine in Syria earlier this year. The alleged attacks were “mainly…in a number of provinces that the Syrian Government does not consider to be under its effective control,” according to a June 16 summary report by the OPCW team that is investigating the claims. The Syrian government and the rebels fighting to topple it have charged each other with launching chemical attacks.

The OPCW traveled in late May to Kafr Zita, the Syrian town “that seemed most affected by incidents of use of chlorine and that was most likely to yield evidence that was fresh from the most recent reported attacks,” the report said. But the team’s convoy had to turn back after it came under attack. (See ACT, June 2014.) The report did not say who was responsible for the attacks.

The team’s “considered view” is that the available information “lends credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks,” the report said.

“[F]ield visits are not envisaged for the immediate future,” but “remain an option,” the report said.

Destruction Proceeds

After the last of Syria’s chemical weapons material was removed from the country June 23, an international convoy brought the highest priority material—the sulfur mustard and DF, a sarin precursor—to the Italian port of Gioia Tauro, where the material was transferred to a U.S. vessel, the MV Cape Ray on July 2. The Cape Ray then moved to international waters in the Mediterranean Sea and began neutralizing the chemicals July 7, using two mobile hydrolysis units it is carrying.

The Cape Ray has taken on about 600 metric tons of Syrian chemicals, according to the Defense Department. That figure is slightly higher than the 560 metric tons that the Pentagon and the OPCW had previously announced. In an e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today, a Defense Department official said the earlier figure was “an estimate [the Defense Department] was using for planning purposes.” The figure of 600 metric tons is a “more accurate and operational figure” that came from documenting the material as it was removed from Syria and loaded onto the Cape Ray, the official said.

In the e-mail exchange, the official said that if there is an accident during the neutralization process on the Cape Ray, the United States “intends to take responsibility for meritorious claims for damages that result from its negligent acts in accordance with its laws and regulations." The official cited a December 2013 OPCW Executive Council document that says the liability of countries assisting in the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons would be “determined according to the circumstances, to the extent of their respective roles, and in light of the purposes” of the relevant UN Security Council and OPCW Executive Council actions.

The official emphasized the safety of the neutralization process, saying that it is “conducted with the utmost attention to personnel and environmental safety” and that “[n]othing from this process will be released into the air or marine environment.”

According to the Defense Department, about 88 of the 582 metric tons of the DF on the Cape Ray had been neutralized as of July 18.

Other chemical weapons material and the effluent resulting from the neutralization aboard the Cape Ray are being processed in facilities in Europe and the United States. Syria, which declared about 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons material, destroyed about 120 metric tons domestically.