Syria’s CW disarmament: spill-over effects for Middle East?

Using the Momentum of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Dismantlement and Identifying Spill-Over Potentials

Discussion note prepared for:  Academic Peace Orchestra – Middle East (APOME), Tackling the Middle East WMD/DVs Arsenals in the Context of Military Asymmetries Towards Zonal Disarmament, Berlin, 11–12 March 2015

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

Introduction

  • Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 September 2013 and formally became a state party on 14 October. This was the outcome of a framework agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacities between Russia and the United States reached in Geneva on 14 September. This accord averted military strikes by France, the United Kingdom and the United States as reprisal for the use of chemical weapons (CW) in the Syrian civil war. In particular the attacks against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August represented a major escalation in the conflict. The sarin nerve agent killed hundreds of people and injured many more. At the time of the attacks a UN team comprising experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were in Damascus in response to an earlier request by the Syrian government to investigate alleged CW use during the spring of 2013. After modification of its mandate, it investigated the Ghouta attacks and issued their preliminary report on 16 September, two days after the Geneva accord. The findings all but blamed the Syrian government. The team submitted its final report covering all chemical warfare allegations from the original mandate as well as some additional attacks after the Ghouta incident on 12 December.
  • After becoming a party to the CWC the verification activities have consisted of four types of activities:
    • Syrian declarations on CW holdings, CW-relevant infrastructure (production and storage sites), and on the history of its chemical warfare programme since 1 January 1946. Given the special circumstances that have led the country to accede to the convention, Syria was requested and has (or is in the process of ) providing information on the destruction of CW before becoming a CWC party. As illustrated by the cases of France and Iran, a state party is not normally required to declare this type of information. However, in order to ensure that Syria is not hiding secret stashes of CW, the requested data contribute to establishing a baseline for its past capacities.
    • The OPCW verifies those declarations, resolves anomalies and where required requests amendments to those declarations.
    • The OPCW conducted inspections at the declared production and storage sites. It oversaw the removal of chemical warfare and precursor agents from Syrian territory and the destruction of delivery means, relevant equipment and installations, and precursor chemicals. It also oversaw the hydrolysis of mustard agent and the neutralisation of a range of precursor chemicals aboard the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean and the destruction of the resulting effluents in incinerators in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. At present the OPCW is also overseeing the destruction of the former Syrian CW production facilities. To date, two out of twelve buildings have been destroyed and completion of this task is envisaged for this summer.
    • The OPCW carried out field investigations into the alleged use of chlorine during the spring and summer of 2014.
  • This background note discusses some unique features of the disarmament regime for Syria and their potential relevancy for the Middle East Zone free from non-conventional weapons.

Adaptation to specific circumstances

  • Nobody anticipated that the OPCW would ever have to evacuate CW from a state party under conditions of war. Such a situation never occurred before. Even the disarmament of Iraq during the 1990s took place after a cease-fire agreement, endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 687 (1991). Syria joined the CWC as a CW possessor state, which was also a first after the treaty-defined destruction deadlines had expired. As a consequence, the responsibility to determine Syria’s interim and final destruction deadlines fell to the Executive Council. Its decision of 27 September 2013 was an adaptation of the US-Russian framework agreement. That same night the UN Security Council endorsed the decision in Resolution 2118 (2013). However, given the virtual impossibility to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures in a second decision of 15 November, none of which are precedent-setting.
  • A first major departure from the standard CWC process concerns the initial declaration. Under Article III this document is due within 30 days after the convention enters into force for a state party and establishes a baseline for the country’s status as CW possessor, plans for the destruction of CW and related installations if so required, a description of any CW-related activities after 1 January 1945, the types of chemical facilities on its territory and the types and quantities of treaty-relevant chemicals they produce. Following that submission OPCW inspectors will verify the accuracy of the initial declaration, upon which the state party can submit amendments if so required. In practice OPCW staff will assist a country preparing to join the CWC with compiling the initial declaration and other measures to be undertaken (e.g., national legislation). In the case of Syria inspectors entered the country even before it had formally become a state party (i.e., 30 days after accession) and such an initial declaration was submitted. The Syrian government had agreed to the accelerated pace. While it enabled the OPCW to quickly secure key CW sites that were accessible (some were in combat zones or under the control of insurgents), prepare inventories and render the delivery systems and special equipment useless, it also created a situation in which the OPCW received a lot of information piecemeal. Combined with the chaos of war, Syrian claims of poor bureaucratic administration of the chemical programmes and quite possibly reluctance to cooperate in full, this led to quite a few corrections of the initial declaration and submission of fresh data. Within the Technical Secretariat a small Declaration Assessment Team was set up to raise questions based on the initial declaration, to identify the gaps, find discrepancies, and so on, in order to correct the declaration. In this way, the OPCW has been able and is still continuing to develop the full picture of Syria’s past CW capacities and programmes.
  • Under the terms of Article IV of the CWC, each state party remains the owner of the CW thatmust be destroyed, destroys those CW on its own territory, and pays for the destruction operations and the OPCW verification activities.Given the inability to destroy the CW inside a country at war and the extremely tight deadline to complete destruction operations, the EC adopted several exceptional measures, none of which are precedent-setting:
    • With the exception of one precursor chemical that had to be destroyed in-country, all warfare agents and other precursors were evacuated by sea from Syria.
    • Once they had left the territory, the international community as represented by the OPCW assumed responsibility for the toxic substances. The legal status of the weapons outside of Syria, and therefore the liability in case of a mishap, was never precisely determined.
    • The toxic substances were neutralised or hydrolysed aboard the specially adapted US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and then transferred to commercial incinerators in Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States and a dedicated CW destruction facility in Germany.
    • Both the UN and the OPCW set up special trust funds to finance the operation as Syria claimed to be unable to pay for the destruction and verification costs. Many countries offered funds or contributed in kind.
  • The Executive Council vested the OPCW Director-General with the authority to launch a procedure similar in purpose to the challenge inspection, but without many of the procedural formalities detailed in the in the CWC. His decision was to follow a request by a state party and a personal judgement as to the seriousness of the allegation based on information supplied by the requesting state party. He could redirect inspectors working in Syria to the designated site of alleged treaty violation. Despite the difficulties in implementing the decisions regarding the CW disarmament in Syria and the many accusations of procrastination and incomplete declarations, nobody has so far requested such a special inspection.
  • For the time being Syria remains under a special disarmament regime and it may still take one or two years, depending on the level of cooperation from Damascus, before the country can become a ‘normal’ state party. Nobody can presently affirm the way in which the transition to normalcy will take place, but the assumption is that both the Executive Council and the UN Security Council will have to take decisions to that effect.
  • OPCW decisions were endorsed by the UN Security Council, which had also insisted on a role for the UN. (The OPCW is not one of the UN organisations.) In order to coordinate negotiations and assess various risk factors related to the inspections, preparation of transportation and the movement of the chemical substances across Syria to the northern port of Latakia, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission was established. (It completed its mandate on 30 September 2014.) Its head reported to both the OPCW and the UN Security Council.

The emerging challenge of opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals

  • Opportunistic use of toxic industrial chemicals occurs when a particular entity resorts to a mode of chemical warfare using toxic chemicals that are readily available at a chemical plant or storage site, but does not undertake steps to develop and produce such weapons. The types of agent thus used can range from extremely common chemical substances, such as chlorine (often used in liquid form for water purification), to compounds such as insecticides and pesticides that, just like sarin or VX, belong to the family organophosphates. A typical characteristic of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals is that the attacks cease as soon as stores have been depleted or access to other sources of supply cut off. Delivery is extremely crude, but some indicators suggest a development process for dissemination devices may take place to enhance the impact of the attacks.
  • Through the spring and summer of 2014 there were several reports of chlorine strikes in Syria. Barrel bombs filled with liquid chlorine were dropped on villages from helicopters, strongly suggesting that government forces were responsible for them. As chlorine (or any other toxic chemical) falls under the General Purpose Criterion (GPC) of the CWC, any use as a method of warfare is prohibited. With Syria a state party to the CWC, the OPCW launched an investigation of alleged use. The fact-finding mission arrived in Damascus on 3 May, five days after its creation by the OPCW Director-General. During an onsite investigation on 27 May the team’s vehicle convoy was hit by an explosive device and came under fire. While this part of the mission had to be discontinued, the investigators were able to collate considerable data by means of other techniques, including victim and witness interviews, analysis of medical records and discussions with medical staff, and the analysis of flight paths of helicopters and correlating them to the precise time and site of the barrel bomb attack. It presented three reports in June, September and December 2014. On 4 February 2015 the OPCW Executive Council’s decision formally determined that chlorine had been used as a method of warfare and condemned the acts as a major breach of the CWC. Even though the conclusion did not identify the culprit, it is clear that as a state party Syria bears responsibility for preventing any violation on its territory.
  • Other allegations of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals attributing responsibility to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged during the second half of 2014. One such claim related to the intense fighting at Avdiko village, 12 km east of Kobani in northern Syria; the other incidents came from Iraq. These occurrences pose a special problem under the CWC. While a state party is responsible for the implementation of the CWC on its territory, the reported events took place in areas not under the control by the government. Moreover the way the alleged use was described in Avdiko, both the perpetrator and the victims were non-state actors, a situation that may potentially create a legal and practical vacuum. Under the terms of the CWC (Verification Annex, Part XI, §27), if use has been alleged on territory not under the control by the government of a state party, then the UN Secretary-General’s mechanism will apply. However, in view of the attacks on the OPCW investigative team in May 2014 and the reliance on the Syrian military for the security and safety of UN and OPCW personnel inside Syria, the question arises how a UN investigation would be able to access an area of intense fighting in which the government military play no role. Thus far no concrete ideas suggestion an international military force to be inserted into a UN member state for the sole purpose of protecting an investigative team have been put forward.

Concluding thoughts

  • The arrangements made to enable the CW elimination in Syria are not precedent-setting. However, the whole process has demonstrated a willingness by the OPCW members to approach difficult and exceptional circumstances in a practical way and they have taken several decisions that deviated significantly from the letter of the CWC. This leads to a cautious optimism that if the international community were to request specific types of assistance in support of a nascent zone free of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East, the OPCW might agree.
  • However, any such optimism would dissipate fast if there were no serious indications that the two countries not yet party to the CWC—Egypt and Israel—were to show no inclination of acceding or ratifying the convention. After all, in Syria’s case inventiveness was also stimulated by the fact that on the same day Russia and the United States announced their joint framework agreement, Damascus deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General and agreed to collaborating with the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW even before the treaty became legally binding on it. This fact alone already deviated from the standard process as foreseen in the CWC.
  • If Egypt and Israel were to embark on a range of CBM-types of activities to enhance transparency with regard to past and present CW activities and issues of concern, then the OPCW might be open to assist the process in a discrete fashion.
  • Particularly in view of the many emotional reactions to events in the Middle East, any scenario of OPCW involvement would require strong common purpose between Russia and the US, and at least tacit endorsement of their initiatives by the other P-5 members.
  • Other than that, the Syrian CW disarmament effort may well remain a truly exceptional case of international collaboration under exceptional circumstances with little bearing on other situations in the Middle East.
  • With ISIL moving into Egypt, a scenario of opportunistic use of toxic chemicals in that country cannot be wholly discounted. By staying outside of the CWC, Cairo denies itself certain international tools of assistance and cooperation that could help to counter the threat or mitigate the consequences of such an attack.
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