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Seizing Control of Assad's Chemical Arsenal: U.S.-Russian Plan Is Difficult But Doable
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Volume 4, Issue 10, September 19, 2013

The large-scale use of chemical weapons (CW) against rebel-controlled areas outside Damascus on August 21 requires a strong international response to help ensure that further such attacks are not launched ever again--in Syria or elsewhere.

The recent findings of the UN chemical weapons inspection team--including evidence of the large-scale use of the nerve agent, Sarin, and the direction and type of the rockets used in the attacks--all point to use by President Bashar al-Assad's forces beyond reasonable doubt. The UN report corroborates and reinforces the conclusions reached by the United States and European intelligence agencies in the days after the attack.

In the wake of Assad's use of these horrible weapons on unprotected civilians, U.S. and Russian leaders have a game-changing opportunity to establish international control over Syria's chemical weapons and to eliminate or remove them within the course of the next year.

After days of intensive talks in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached a landmark agreement Sept. 14 on a detailed plan for the expeditious accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria's sizable arsenal of chemical weapons-probably the world's fourth largest today.

The U.S.-Russian plan is thorough and tough; the timetable for action is difficult but doable. It deserves the full support of the international community and the implementing agency for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)--the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The Framework for Eliminating Syria's CW

The Sept. 14 U.S.-Russian joint framework calls on Syria to provide a full declaration of its stockpile "within a week" and "to achieve accountability for their chemical weapons, the Syrians must provide the OPCW, the UN, and other supporting personnel with the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria." The plan calls for the OPCW inspectors to complete their initial inspections by November.

The document states that U.S. and Russian officials have also reached a consensus on the size of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and calls for the destruction of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons and chemical agents by the first half of 2014.

Reinforcing the Political and Legal Mandate

In the coming days, the OPCW Executive Council must approve the framework agreement and UN Security Council must come together on a resolution mandating that Syria comply with the plan.

At a minimum, the resolution should:

  • Unequivocally condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a war crime;
  • Forbid further use of chemical weapons by anyone, under any circumstances;
  • Recognize Syria's accession to the CWC;
  • Demand that the Syrian government immediately and fully declare its chemical weapons and facilities, and allow inspectors immediate access to and control of all chemical weapons storage and production sites;
  • Demand that Syria and all CWC member states fully cooperate with the OPCW and other Security Council members to achieve the removal and/or destruction of its entire chemical arsenal no later than mid-2014; and
  • Call upon all other states that have not yet signed and ratified the convention--Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, and South Sudan--to do so immediately.

In addition, the plan for international control of Syria's chemical stockpiles requires an effective enforcement mechanism.

As the Obama administration has noted, Russia's pursuit and Syria's acceptance of the concept of international control has only come after the threat of the use of force. In order to ensure that Syria fully implements its commitments, the Security Council should agree that "serious action" by Council members under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, including the use of force, would be warranted if there are flagrant violations by Assad. If not, the United States and other governments must continue to reserve the right to use force to compel implementation by Syria.

The Chemical Weapons Destruction Task

Assad's forces are believed to possess (and are responsible for maintaining control over) about 1,100 tons of blister agents, including mustard gas, and nerve agents, including Sarin and VX. Syria's stockpile is deliverable by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.

Before the Syrian civil war began, independent analysts believed that there were about a dozen chemical weapons stockpiles and production-related sites inside Syria. Today, published press reports based on Western intelligence sources suggest there may be as many as 40 such sites.

Together, the United States and Russia know a good deal more about the size and nature of the Syrian CW stocks, including whether most of it is in precursor chemicals, and/or bulk storage and how much of it is weaponized.

The Sept. 14 framework document states that "the United States and Russia have reached a shared assessment of the amount and type of chemical weapons" in Syria, and that "[w]e further determined that the most effective control of these weapons may be achieved by removal of the largest amounts of weapons feasible, under OPCW supervision, and their destruction outside Syria if possible."

If Syria's stockpile is in bulk form, it can be more easily be incinerated, neutralized, or detonated in closed steel-canister systems (mobile "bang boxes"), making destruction within the nine to twelve months feasible. These Explosive Detonation Systems (EDS) have been used very effectively in China by the Japanese for the ongoing destruction of some 750,000 buried and old Japanese chemical munitions, and will be used in Pueblo, Colorado, and in Blue Grass, Kentucky as supplements to the neutralization processes for leaking and troublesome U.S. chemical weapons.

Russia also has some of the best equipped and trained chemical weapons personnel and significant destruction capabilities, including the Shchuch'ye chemical weapons destruction facility, which opened in 2009.

The technology for destroying the Syrian chemical stocks and the capability to get the job done is there; the key is maintaining the political will to do so.

The Best Alternative

While there are many further, challenging steps ahead, the agreement is an important breakthrough that can deny the Assad regime access to his dangerous chemical arsenal and significantly reduce the risk that the government can use CW again, either inside Syria or against neighboring states in the region.

The Obama administration plan for a punitive U.S. cruise missile strike would have degraded but not eliminated Assad's ability to launch chemical weapons against rebel forces, Syrian civilians, and/or targets in Israel, Turkey, or Jordan. By contrast, the plan for the verifiable control and destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal has the potential to achieve more at a lower risk. It is the best option on the table.

Assad's cost-benefit calculation about chemical weapons has already changed: they are now an enormous liability that cannot be used and only through their verifiable elimination can he avoid punitive military strikes that would have the backing of not just the United States, but the UN Security Council.

It is possible that Assad may try to hide some of his CW stockpile, but it will be difficult for him to do successfully so over the course of the inspection process, which will be aided by U.S. and Russian intelligence on the nature and location and size of the Syrian stockpile- and there will be serious consequences if Assad does not cooperate and does not turn over his entire CW arsenal.

The U.S.-Russian agreement states that: "in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter."

The strong U.S. and global reaction against the brazen use of chemical weapons, combined with the credible threat of punitive U.S. cruise missile strikes to degrade Assad's CW capabilities, has transformed Syria's chemical arsenal into a liability for both Assad and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Although Russia will continue to object to the possible use of force against Assad, Moscow is now invested in the success of the plan, something that was hard to imagine even a week ago.

The U.S.-Russian Framework for the control and verifiable destruction of Syria's chemical weapons is, of course, not intended to resolve the ongoing, brutal conflict in Syria. But it does provide the most effective way of denying Assad the option to use one of his most dangerous weapons--against which the rebel forces and Syria's civilians do not stand a chance. And it does so in a way that can facilitate U.S.-Russian cooperation toward bringing key parties together to reach a political settlement for ending the conflict.

Contrary to some critics, the plan does not "absolve" Assad for using chemical weapons. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime under the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN Security Council can refer such war crimes to the ICC even if the persons responsible are citizens of a state that has not ratified the ICC statute. This and other options for holding Assad and his chemical henchmen accountable will remain on the table.

It is clearly everyone's interest to ensure the success of the plan for denying Assad access to his chemical arsenal, which will reinforce the long-standing and vital global prohibition against chemical weapons and is the most effective way to protect Syria's civilians from further poison gas attacks.--DARYL G. KIMBALL



The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today