Syria missed an April 27 deadline for removal of its chemical weapons materials, with about 8 percent of its declared arsenal of 1,300 metric tons reportedly remaining to be shipped out of the country or destroyed domestically.
Also in late April, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced it would investigate allegations of chlorine use in recent weeks in the area near the Syrian village of Kafr Zita.
On the shipment of materials out of the country, Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator of the joint mission by the OPCW and the United Nations to oversee the removal and destruction effort, said it was the mission’s “hope and expectation” that Syria “will take the final step very soon,” according to the UN News Service.
The news service, reporting on an April 27 press briefing by Kaag in Damascus, cited a figure of 92.5 percent completion for the removal and destruction effort. In recent comments, U.S. officials have used similar figures. At an April 28 press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “With our international partners, we’re going to continue to press the regime to live up to its obligations, including by removing the remaining 8 percent.”
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 highest-priority 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.
Statements by OPCW and U.S. officials in late April suggested that the remaining chemical weapons material was located at a single site, but they did not name the site.
Under a schedule set last November by the OPCW Executive Council, the highest-priority 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 chemical agents that Syria declared were 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. That timetable was established last September by the Executive Council and the UN Security Council. (See ACT, October 2013.) After Syria missed the December and February deadlines, officials from the OPCW, the UN, and key countries in late February and early March negotiated a revised schedule, setting April 27 as the deadline.
The Long View
In an April 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Jean Pascal Zanders, director of The Trench, a consultancy on disarmament issues, expressed some doubt that the June 30 deadline would be met. Nevertheless, he said, “[i]f this operation is completed successfully in the near future, and we look back upon the past months in a year or two, the missed deadlines will feature only as minor bumps along the road in the final narrative.”
Paul Walker, a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee who is now director of environmental security and sustainability with Global Green USA, said considerations such as ensuring security, worker safety, and protection of the environment and public health are “much more important” than meeting a specific deadline.
In an April 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Walker, who is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, also said that once all the chemicals are removed from Syria, there should a “full release” of information identifying the chemicals and the amounts of each that are treated on the Cape Ray and elsewhere.
In its April 29 press release on the “fact-finding mission,” the OPCW did not give a time frame, saying only that its team would be heading to Syria “soon” to investigate the allegations of chlorine use. According to the release, “[T]he Syrian government, which has agreed to accept this mission, has undertaken to provide security in areas under its control.”
The Syrian government and the rebels fighting to topple it have charged each other with launching a chemical attack. The allegations of such an attack appear to be supported by videos posted on social media. Some observers have identified the agent as chlorine, but others have raised questions on that point.
In April 29 remarks to the OPCW Executive Council, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, referred to “public reports and videos indicating the use of a toxic chemical, probably chlorine.”
Chlorine is not one of the chemicals named by the Chemical Weapons Convention, but Zanders and Walker emphasized that its use as a weapon of war would nevertheless constitute a violation of the treaty. According to the OPCW website, “[A] toxic or precursor chemical may be defined as a chemical weapon depending on its intended purpose…. The definition thus includes any chemical intended for chemical weapons purposes, regardless of whether it is specifically listed in the Convention, its Annexes or the schedules of chemicals.”
The original version of this article misstated the date of the April 28 comment by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.