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May 19, 2021
Putting Syrian Chemical Weapons Under International Control? Some Key Considerations

Arms Control NOW

By Daryl G. Kimball

Today, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Russia will push Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control if such a move would help avert a possible, punitive U.S. cruise missile strike on Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons on August 21 by regime forces.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham said this afternoon in remarks at White House that if Syria immediately surrenders stockpile, as suggested by Secretary of State Kerry and Russia, "that would be an important step" but can't be "another excuse for delay."

Senior administration officials say they are carefully studying the Russian proposal and note that it has only emerged under the threat of use of force from the United States.

Today's news follows informal discussions involving nongovernmental experts and some public proposals over the past several days that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad could possibly escape punitive military action for his use of chemical weapons if he were to immediately accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), declare his CW stockpiles as required under the treaty, and allow inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in to all sites to inventory the munitions.

Syria is only one of seven countries that has not signed and ratified the CWC. Assad's forces are believed to possess (and are responsible for maintaining control over) hundreds of tons of blister agents, including mustard gas, and nerve agents, including sarin and VX. Its stockpile is deliverable by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.

The emerging Russian proposal to Syria is worth exploring if an answer from the Assad government is forthcoming soon--within days--and if Russia is serious, and if the proposal is enforceable.

As my colleague at ACA, Senior Fellow Greg Thielmann told CNN International today: this "a testable proposition. Assad could say tomorrow 'we will sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, we will let inspectors from implementing organization of that treaty into Syria.'"

But to enforce it, any such pledge should be accompanied by a UNSC resolution that:

  • condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria;
  • forbids further use of chemical weapons under any circumstances;
  • demands that Syria immediately sign the CWC, declares its stockpile, and allows the OPCW and/or UN CW inspectors immediate access to all CW storage and production sites; and
  • call upon all other states who have not yet signed or ratified the CWC to do so immediately.

Unfortunately, the UN Security Council has not even issued a press release condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, due to Russian opposition, and Syria has for decades refused to join the CWC.

If the proposal is serious and if the UN Security Council were to take up the issue of putting Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles under international control, the Council might also consider expanding the scope of the UN investigation to include the issue of responsibility for August 21 attacks and other suspected CW attacks in Syria. The UN Security Council could consider declaring that those found responsible for the August 21 attacks will be subject to prosecution before the International Criminal Court. Each of these steps could help deter further CW use, but could make it harder to obtain agreement.

Any Syrian government chemical weapons demilitarization initiative would have to be overseen very carefully in order to make sure Assad is fully declaring all of his chemical weapons stockpiles. One of the bigger challenges would also be the safety and security of the OPCW or UN inspectors and the longer-term security of the stockpiles until an adequate destruction program could be worked out.