New Syria Chemical Weapons Removal Proposal

Like everyone else, I’m following the news about the Russian proposal for Syrian chemical weapons to be surrendered to international inspectors, and removed from Syrian territory.  The narrative of how this came about, including Kerry’s gaffe turned diplomatic opportunity, makes for diverting reading. Whatever its provenance, it does seem to have come at an opportune moment for President Obama, providing him a welcome escape out of his self-imposed predicament of an imminent “no” vote from Congress on his plan for missile strikes on Syria.

I’m still listening to the idea as its being spun out by – whoever is spinning it. And in theory it sounds like a fine idea. But color me a pessimist at the moment that this would in reality do any more than to provide President Obama a face-saving exit, at least in the short term, from his political mess, and give Assad a way to neutralize the threat of US military force while requiring only that he play along with an international inspection and removal operation that will take years to complete, and that would never be able to provide any real assurance that he won’t have more chemical weapons readily available to him if he wants them.

This CNN article, referencing the experience of inspectors in Iraq and noting the challenges facing the implementation of this idea in Syria, pretty well expresses my view at this point.


10 Comments on “New Syria Chemical Weapons Removal Proposal”

  1. yousaf says:

    I am glad the congress is doing its job in representing the American people and I am glad for the sensible proposal from Russia.

    More US led violence in the mideast will not solve anything, especially as we don’t yet know who ordered the CW attack.

  2. JP Zanders says:

    Dan, it is possible to have a more positive view on the disarmament question, but for that one needs to focus on solving a number of logistical and technological problems, rather than on the interplay between political egos and who comes on top. Having said that, I do not wish to underestimate the challenges, particularly regarding the ensuring the safety and security of international staff and contractors and the CW themselves during transportation, storage and destruction operations. For this, check out the contribution on my disarmament blog;

    There is to a certain extent a parallel between Iraq 1991 and Syria 2013: the pursuit of the twin track of disarmament and regime change. The latter component ensured that Saddam had little incentive to cooperate with the disarmament objectives.

    How difficult this may be from the perspective of international humanitarian and human rights law, a decision needs to be made about the higher goal under the present circumstances: remove the threat of CW and thus avoid future victims of CW, or seek justice for the hundreds dead from CW that have occurred, add to the tally of 100,000 plus dead from conventional warfare by means of punitive strikes, and shout out your exasperation the next time women and children succumb to poisonous substances. Disarmament is about preventing war or particular types of warfare (and thus about removing the circumstances under the laws of war could be violated in the first place).

    As this blog is about legal dimensions, I think it would be good if legal experts could investigate whether Syria’s CW can be moved at all. All of Syria’s neighbours are party to the CWC, and can therefore not have CW on their territory. Article I states that a party can never under any circumstance ” develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone” (emphasis added).

    Furthermore, the same article makes it the responsibility of the possessing state to destroy its CW. This is a basic principle.

    However, even if transport were feasible through interpretation or the adoption of an ad hoc exception, what would be the impact of national law on the idea. There are not that many countries with CW destruction facilities, even assuming that they would be willing to take the Syrian CW in. The USA and Russia both have federal and state/regional laws that ban the transport of CW across state/region borders. Here I am assuming maritime transport (what about territorial waters, e.g. in the Bosporus or the Straits of Gibraltar?). If the munitions were to be airlifted, I suppose that other international regulations, incl. about hazardous transports, kick in. And then, I am not even speculating aboout the impact of CWC Art. I on national airspace.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      These are all good legal questions, Jean Pascal. The short answer from me is I have no idea how the advocates of this plan are going to get around the very significant legal issues that would attend taking them out of Syria, if that is indeed what would happen to them under the plan.

      Just getting an accounting of them is going to be difficult in war conditions, let alone trying to move them around. It seems to me that it would be far preferable legally to keep them inside Syria and dispose of them there, but I know this is a huge challenge technically/industrially. And the timeframe for doing anything like that would clearly be many years, and that’s assuming that the civil war doesn’t get worse during that time.

      I’m for the idea in theory, but as I wrote in my post, I just don’t see it being workable, unless everyone can agree and be happy with just having Syria sign the CWC and move through the normal steps of declaring their stockpiles and making arrangements within Syria to dispose of them.

  3. Johnboy says:

    I happen to think this proposal from Lavrov is excellent.

    As far as I understand it there are three parts:
    1) Syria signs the CWC and thereby agrees to dispose of its stockpile
    2) Syria and the OPCW go off into a corner to negotiate the why’s and wherefore’s of how Syria disposes of that stockpile
    3) While (1) and (2) are underway an “international force” (a.k.a. “the Russian army”) secures those warehouses. Anyone who attempts to approach those stockpiles ends up with an AK-47 bayonet up their backside.

    Q: What if the Security Council tries to poke its nose into that via UN inspectors?
    A: Piss off. The OPCW has that role, not you.

    Q: And if the USofA tries to set an unreasonable timetable?
    A: Piss off. The CWC says that Syria gets ten years to do this, Just Like You.

    Q: And if Obama insists that 10 years is much too long?
    A: That’d be funny coming from a country that still hasn’t finished disposing of its stockpile, even with an extension to its 10 year deadline.

    Honestly, as far as I can tell this proposal has got a lot going for it: at the very least Assad won’t be able to use his chemical weapons because he’s required to hand his keys over to Putin.

    Isn’t that *supposed* to be the point of the exercise?

    • JP Zanders says:

      “Q: And if the USofA tries to set an unreasonable timetable?
      A: Piss off. The CWC says that Syria gets ten years to do this, Just Like You.”

      Wrong pee.
      The 10 years are counted from the date of entry into force of the CWC. In the Syrian case the Conference of the States Parties would have to determine the final and interim destruction deadlines.

      And in any case, it was 15 years (10+5)

      • Johnboy says:

        “The 10 years are counted from the date of entry into force of the CWC.”

        Yeah, that’s what I said: Syria has 10 years to do this.

        “And in any case, it was 15 years (10+5)”

        Yeah, I know that. I said that the USA got 10 years, and then it had to ask for a one-time extension.

  4. JP Zanders says:

    No, the 10 years no longer count. The timeline for Syria is now entirely up to a decision by the CSP. 2012 as ultimate deadline in the convention is history.

    • yousaf says:

      I believe (but stand to be corrected) that Johnboy’s general point was that if Syria were given the timeframe allotted other countries — say, out of a sense of fairness — then this would imply Syria has many many years.

      • JP Zanders says:

        I appreciate your comment, Youssaf. However, I do not think that we have to take the USA as the starting or reference point for every argument we wish to make.

        The USA has had to deal with 30,000 agent tonnes in 1990; Syria to the best of our knowledge has around or just above 1,000 tonnes. Therefore, the reference point should be more countries like India, etc.

        My point is that the Executive Council (I stand corrected, I mentioned Conference of the States Parties earlier) will determine the final and interim destruction deadlines in function of the specific situation in Syria, and not what the USA may or may not have done (the NIMBY democracy being a major factor in those delays).

      • yousaf says:

        Thanks — good point. I think that outside countries will have to do destruction of the agents, so Syria’s role is minimal. The rate-determining step will be fixed by whichever nation is doing the actual neutralization and disposal.

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