Becoming the largest weapon-control treaty

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has just announced the accession of Angola to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The country deposited its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General on 16 September, which means that it will become a party to the CWC 30 days later, that is, 16 October.

Angola will thus be the 192nd state to join the OPCW. No other treaty limiting possession or use of a particular type of weaponry can boast that many parties. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has 191; the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) 173.

Middle East – The hard nut

According to the OPCW statement, only four states now remain outside the treaty: Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan.

North Korea presents the simplest problem. There is no diplomatic interaction at all, so expectations that Pyongyang will join the CWC any time soon are as good as zero.

Some optimism exists about South Sudan. Efforts are underway to secure succession (Sudan has been a party since June 1999) as part of a broader package that includes offers of assistance to rebuild the war-torn state. Having said that, the date of OPCW membership keeps getting pushed back into a less definite future in parallel with the floundering efforts to bring peace to the country.

Egypt remains of course obsessed by Israel’s nuclear weapons, while Israel continues to fail to see any benefits in collective security in its pursuit of a peace-first policy in a region that seems to be descending ever further into violence and instability. The fact of the matter is that neither country would lose an iota of national security by joining the CWC; quite on the contrary. Symbolism can be a powerful demotivator …

And what about Palestine?

Among the NPT’s membership is the State of Palestine, which acceded to the treaty as the 191st party in February 2015. It deposited its instrument of accession in London and Moscow (but not Washington). On 10 September the UN General Assembly voted to fly the Palestinian flag outside the UN building—together with that of another non-member observer state maintaining a permanent observer mission at the UN Headquarters, the Holy See.

OPCW statements do not list this Palestine in its statements on universality. It should be noted that UN membership is not a precondition for becoming a party to the CWC. Article XX speaks about accession of ‘any state’; Article XXIII designates the UN Secretary-General as depository and provides no grounds for rejecting any state. The Vatican joined the CWC in June 1999.

As far as I know, Palestinian authorities have not made any statements about acceding to the CWC. It may be that some low-level contacts are taking place between the OPCW and the Palestinian Mission to the EU in Brussels, but if this is the case, it is definitely not yet causing any ripples.

Is there an abundance of caution as a consequence of US laws that defund UN agencies that accept Palestine as a full member, thereby seemingly legitimising its quest for full statehood? While it is true the the USA is the single biggest contributor to the OPCW budget, reality is that (1) the OPCW is not a UN agency, and (2) as noted above, the CWC is not an invitation-only club. Unlike, for example, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), OPCW members do not get to vote on the accession of another state.

So, for the OPCW, four or five more countries before full universality, that’s the question!


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.

Chlorine: A weapon of last resort for ISIL? (Part 2)

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

From September 2014 on several reports have alleged chlorine use by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq. The claims began shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had released its first report on its investigation into the chlorine attacks in Syria earlier in the year. In a politically highly charged atmosphere in which supporters and opponents of the regime of President Bashir al-Assad use any incident to blame insurgent forces of atrocities or call for regime change, one must necessarily view accusations of chemical warfare with a healthy dose of scepticism. This is particularly the case if allegations disappear as quickly as they surface.

However, during the autumn of last year there was some consistency in the albeit irregular reports. Furthermore, on 10 February, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü confirmed that the Iraqi authorities had notified the OPCW of chlorine gas attacks against Iraqi soldiers. At present it is not known which steps, if any, the OPCW will undertake with regard to these allegations.

Last October I described how al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a precursor organisation to ISIL, applied chlorine in a campaign of car bombings between October 2006 and June 2007. While many people in the vicinity of the detonation required medical treatment for exposure to the agent, nobody was actually killed by the gas. This posting looks into the various allegations of insurgent chlorine attacks in Syria and Iraq since 2013.

Read the rest of this entry »


Wow! Did the OPCW really say that?

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

It is true that pressure for Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is steadily mounting. Presently 190 states are party to the treaty. Besides Israel, only Angola, Egypt, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan have not ratified or acceded to it. As participants in the 2014 Jonathan Tucker Conference on Chemical and Biological Arms Control heard yesterday from Dr Peter Sawzcak, Head of Government Relations and Political Affairs Branch of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Myanmar is expected to ratify the CWC in its forthcoming parliamentary session in January. The Council of Ministers of Angola, which will take up a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council next year, is to decide on joining the Arms Trade Treaty, Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and CWC really soon. South Sudan may also become a party to the CWC in the near future as part of a broader package deal under development. As was pointed out by some other speakers at the Jonathan Tucker Conference, being in the company of North Korea is not good for a democracy such as Israel.

However, in an article published on 11 December the Times of Israel quoted an anonymous OPCW official affirming that Israel has a chemical weapon (CW) stockpile. He also stated that he knew the size of the chemical arsenal, but refused to go into details. According to a second article in Arutz Sheva Israel Radio quoted the official as saying that the UN needed to begin an investigation of Israel on its chemical weapons stores, as it did with Syria.

According to the Times of Israel, he also said that Egypt has thousands of tonnes of CW.

Israel is a CWC signatory state. Under Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties a signatory state is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty. In other words, if Israel were indeed to have a CW stockpile, it would be in a clear breach of its international obligations. This is not a light accusation to make. Particularly if it is made in the name of the multilateral organisation that is responsible for ridding the world of these heinous weapons.

Striking too is the lack of nuance in the claims. Egypt and Israel have had past CW programmes. But in the absence of reports of troop training and testing of munitions, how useful is it to retain aging stockpiles? Would the agents be subject to degradation? Are stocks being replenished (which implies active CW production facilities)? Egypt’s ‘thousands of tonnes’ puts the country in the same league as Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea (according to South Korean assessments) and well ahead of what has been removed from Syria over the past eighteen months. Mohamed Heikal, an Egyptian journalist and commentator on Arab affairs, described in his excellent book Illusions of Triumph: Arab View of the Gulf War (London: Fontana, 1993, pp. 91–93) how then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat closed down Egypt’s CW production plant after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and in 1981 refused to reopen it to supply Saddam Hussein with CW. To the best of my knowledge, this passage has not yet been seriously challenged.

Considering the culture of confidentiality at the OPCW and the organisation’s systematic refusal to comment on individual states—just take the many anodyne press statements on the CW disarmament project in Syria—the incident is remarkable to say the least. One would hope that those specific assertions were intended to be wholly off the record, but even so…

 Update

OPCW Statement Regarding Israeli Media Reports on a Recent OPCW Briefing
Thursday, 11 December 2014

OPCW officials met with a group of journalists from Israel on Monday of this week and briefed them on the OPCW’s work, achievements and future challenges. On the issue of achieving universality of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it was mentioned to the journalists that there are six non-States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, including Israel.

In regard to the capacities of those six countries, it was clearly stated that the CWC verification regime functions on the basis of declarations, and that the OPCW would be able to ascertain possession of chemical weapons by any non-State Party only after it joined the Convention and made a formal declaration to the Organisation.


Üzümcü: “After Syria I do not see any country able to use chemical weapons anymore”

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]

The last day of October, a sunny Friday in The Hague, I met with Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü to reflect on the previous year and a half, during which the civil war in Syria suddenly thrust the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into the spotlight.

In March 2013 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested technical assistance from the OPCW to investigate alleged chemical weapon (CW) use in the war-torn country. Six months later, after a serious incident in which sarin nerve agent killed and poisoned many hundreds of people in the Ghouta district of Damascus, Syria unexpectedly joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. And so began an urgent and perilous disarmament project. The announcement that the OPCW was to receive the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize just knocked international expectations from the organisation several notches higher.

The Syrian disarmament project has had a clear impact on the OPCW. Not just on its daily operations during the past 18 months, but it will also affect its future. However, the key question is whether the OPCW’s success in trying circumstances can inspire the international community to revive disarmament as a security tool.

Syria’s CW precursors have been evacuated and are almost all destroyed. Destruction of former CW production facilities has now begun. What were you thinking last year when you accepted the tight deadlines in the US–Russian Geneva Framework Agreement?

The Framework Agreement reached in Geneva on 14 September of last year was a significant achievement. The Russians and Americans wrapped up their negotiations in four days, which surprised us as much as the whole international community. We knew that the OPCW could be called on to address the chemical part of the Syrian conflict. In which form and under which conditions, we did not know then. Even so we were prepared to get involved and if necessary, to take the lead, all the while knowing such a project would be very challenging.

We first saw this document on 14 September. On 27 September, the Executive Council decided on OPCW involvement and a few hours later the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) endorsed that decision. Between both dates, we had 13 days to prepare our team for deployment to Damascus, work out the modalities, and so on. Having said that, I should add that the Technical Secretariat had been preparing itself for several contingencies. They included possible investigation of alleged CW use. We were thus ready when in March 2013 the UN Secretary-General called upon our expertise. In September, we had a team of 60 volunteer inspectors ready to go to Syria. They had trained to carry out different tasks.

Still, I was following the Geneva talks from Beijing. The negotiators raised questions whether we would be ready to do this or that. Our responses were all positive. We looked at our gaps. We identified a few areas where we would need some additional support, so we decided to rehire some of our former experts and hire some external experts. Important to us was to act swiftly and diligently. We also had to demonstrate to the international community that after 16 years the OPCW had the necessary capacity and expertise. I think we succeeded.

As I said, on Friday, 27 September, the decision was taken here. The same day the UNSC endorsed it in a resolution. On Monday, our inspectors were on their way. On Tuesday, they arrived in Damascus. The UN clearly had some difficulties to match this pace. The UN mechanism is huge compared to ours. So I called Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday, the day before the UNSC decision. I told him that we were ready to deploy and asked him for logistical and security support, which we received. Despite the magnitude of the challenge and the security situation in Syria, I think the Technical Secretariat was fully prepared to lead. When I say ‘lead’, I of course refer to the technical part of the operation. We relied on the UN for logistical support and security.

The other obvious challenge was the financial dimension. In that respect, having seen the support from the whole international community for this Russian–US initiative, I actually did not have any concerns. It was proven later on that we would have the necessary funds in both the UN and the OPCW Trust Funds. Financial aspects would not be problematic and they never were.

A year ago, I should say, we were both mentally and physically prepared to go to Syria. I personally was involved in setting up a task force, which I chaired every morning on the 7th floor of the OPCW headquarters. This also gave me the opportunity to know better some of our staff members. They were really capable and pleased to be able to help coordinate such a major operational mission.

Read the rest of this entry »


Gradually making sense of Syria’s CW declarations

Since my last update on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) capacities in May, all precursor chemicals have finally left the country. Some have been shipped to facilities in Finland and the USA, where they are in the process of being destroyed. The United Kingdom meanwhile completed the destruction of 190 tonnes of chemicals at an incinerator in Ellesmere Port.

As of 7 August, 74.2% of Syria’s entire stockpile of chemical warfare agent precursors have been destroyed. Other chemicals are meanwhile being neutralised on board of the US vessel Cape Ray in the Mediterranean, and the resulting reaction mass will eventually be commercially incinerated too.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is gradually slipping off the radar screen of international media. The huge pressure of safely evacuating the precursor chemicals from the war-torn country now removed, the organisation can slowly return to its more familiar role in the background of international politics: monitoring compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and resolving any outstanding issues. Syria will increasingly become more integrated as a ‘normal’ member of the OPCW. This, however, does not mean that the OPCW will relax its efforts to achieve full accounting of its chemical warfare programmes, clarification of allegations of CW use, or complete destruction of all relevant declared facilities. Syria’s recurring amendments to its initial declaration of 23 October 2013 demonstrate the grinding, but nonetheless steady progress the OPCW is making.

Two new elements (at least to outsiders) have surfaced over the past couple of weeks: Syria’s presentation of a destruction plan for abandoned chemical weapons (ACW) and the declaration of a CW production facility dedicated to ricin manufacture.

Re-hexamination of Syria’s sarin

The UN Secretary-General’s latest monthly progress report on the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capabilities refers to Syria’s submission on 14 July of a destruction plan for two sarin-filled munitions. Syria denies ownership of these CW and has therefore declared them as ACW.

The two munitions were recovered after the CW attack at Jobar, an eastern suburb of Damascus, on 24 August 2013 (i.e., three days after the Ghouta chemical attacks). Four days later, Syria notified the UN Secretary General of the use of an improvised explosive device (IED) releasing a foul and strange odour. The UN team investigating alleged CW use visited the site on 29 September. It was unable to examine the place of impact or recover munition fragments, because mine clearing operations had completely corrupted the surroundings. Syrian officials handed over IED fragments and contaminated soil samples, which they claimed came from the incident site. For obvious reasons, the UN team could not certify their chain of custody.

According to the Final Report by the UN Mission (p. 65), the investigative team ‘was also presented with two metal canisters discovered by Government soldiers during the offensive operations in Jobar on 25 August 2013 in the immediate aftermath of the incident and in close vicinity of the site of the alleged incident’. These were said to be identical to ones used in the chemical incident the day before. Made of steel sheeting of 1mm thickness, the plates were bent and welded together manually at a sub-industrial standard. The canisters nevertheless revealed a high degree of expertise with the electric welding process. The UN investigators were also able to establish that ‘a detonator and a coiling of the detonating cord, acting as a booster, composed the fire train, electrically initiated’. They had an internal fill capacity of up to approximately 4 litres (see figure below). The two metal canisters are the ACW Syria declared to the OPCW. (This description corrects the suggestion in my posting of 26 May that the two ACW were Volcano rockets. The claim that Syria did not declare any Volcano rockets as CW still stands, however.)

Syria CW IED - UN investigation

Analysis of their contents by the OPCW confirmed sarin as their payload. Moreover, the filling displayed all the characteristics of sarin as produced by the Syrian government, the principal telltale sign being the presence of hexamine (hexamethylenetetramine). Since its presence in samples was first reported by the UN investigative team last September in relation to the Ghouta attack and the OPCW later released that Syria had declared 80 metric tonnes of the chemical in connection with sarin production, there has been furious speculation as to its exact role. In a recent analysis focussing explicitly on the role of hexamine, UK-based CW expert Daniel Kaszeta argued that the Syrians used the compound as an acid scavenger in the final reaction of their rather unique sarin production process. Reacting DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride) with isopropanol yields sarin and hydrofluoric acid, the latter being a toxic and extremely corrosive gas that would have quickly damaged the production and agent filling installations. Hexamine binds this acid, and does so more efficiently than other amino compounds.

However, recent discussions with officials from some Western states indicate two other roles of hexamine, namely as catalyst and stabiliser. The catalyst function is probably closely tied to the acid scrubber role. In an e-mail exchange today, Ralf Trapp, a chemist and consultant to the OPCW, confirmed that hexamine increases the yield of the chemical reaction by pulling the equilibrium between the precursors and reaction product (sarin) in favour of the latter. As a result, the sarin concentration receives a significant boost, possibly up to 60%. This degree of purity is considerably higher than the yields achieved by Iraq in the 1980s.

As a stabiliser, hexamine probably allowed the Syrians to store freshly produced sarin for days, if not several weeks. This understanding is more compatible with views before the civil war that Syria’s CW served strategic deterrence. Munitions declared to the OPCW last autumn also seem to validate those views. Initiating the final reaction shortly before use, as was the case in Iraq, would have undermined this doctrinal role. The insight also raises fresh questions about the curious White House claim last August that the United States had observed Syrian preparations for three days prior to the Ghouta attacks.

Strictly speaking, the chemical analysis of the sarin in the two ACW confirms beyond any doubt that the nerve agent was produced by means of the same process as the one used by the Syrian government. The distinctive signature, however, cannot exclude the possibility that insurgents might have captured some CW. Western officials tend not to give much credence to this hypothesis.

Castor beans: cancer research, castor oil, or ricin?

The latest monthly progress report also reveals that on 14 July Syria submitted yet another amendment to its initial declaration. The document lists a dedicated ricin production plant. As a weapon the toxin is banned under both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the CWC. The CWC requires the verified destruction of CW production facilities, but the amendment claims that it is located in an area not under government control. It also states that the entire quantity of ricin produced was eliminated prior to the entry into force of the CWC for Syria. If correct, then Syria need not declare its past toxin weapon holding. CW disarmament in Syria, however, is hardly a normal operation. As with its claimed destruction of 200 tonnes of mustard agent early in 2013, the OPCW must investigate those statements to ascertain that the country is not hiding any residual CW.

This progress report was the first to publicly mention ricin production. Last April concerns about the toxin had already filtered out of the United Nations, but they have thus far remained a relatively low-level matter at the OPCW. This was in part a consequence of the high-priority preoccupation with getting the precursor chemicals out of Syria, and in part because nothing seems to indicate that the country presently has ricin weapons. Questions remain nonetheless.

Syria apparently cultivated castor oil plants (Ricinus communis) on several tracts the size of football fields. In itself, this is no so unusual as the oil makes for an excellent lubricant for heavy engines, such as those in military lorries. However, Syria’s initial explanation referred to cancer research and treatment, which was wholly implausible in view of the minute quantities of ricin required for research. Castor oil also lacks any medicinal value to cure cancer. It was used to deliver some chemotherapy drugs to tumours, but occasional side effects, such as allergic reactions, have led to the adoption of alternatives. Starting in the 1980s, Texas Tech University and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center conducted long-term research on the oncological application of genetically modified ricin to kill diseased cells. According to a press release of October 1998, ‘just two acres of land, given the right castor seed, could produce enough ricin to meet the world’s pharmaceutical supply need for cancer treatment’. Ricin is also being investigated in relation to neurological degenerative disorders and in the treatment of intractable painful neuropathies.  It is rather hard to think of Syria as a global supplier of medicinal ricin many times over.

This leaves the question of ricin as a weapon. Ricin is an instrument of choice for assassinations, as befell Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in London in 1978. More recently clumsy attempts to send ricin-filled letters to hated persons, including President Barack Obama, have also put the spotlight on the agent. Since the First World War many states considered ricin as a possible tool of warfare, but they have never incorporated it as a standard agent into their chemical and biological warfare arsenals. Despite the military attractiveness of its toxicity, the toxin poses several serious problems in relation to large-scale production, longer-term storage (unless turned into a solid), and dissemination techniques. While none of these problems are insurmountable, the net effect is that the agent is more cumbersome to weaponise or less effective on the battlefield than alternatives.

Right now the reason behind Syria’s declaration of a CW production facility exclusively dedicated to ricin manufacture remains murky. On the one hand, in view of the many publicly available accounts describing the many difficulties of producing and especially storing the toxin in free state for longer periods of time, it almost seems implausible that Syria would have embarked on a major ricin weapon programme. Interestingly, several Western officials I recently spoke to tend to discount public Israeli reports on Syria’s ricin programme. The annual US State Department report on arms control treaty compliance for 2014 dropped the reference to ricin-based biological weapons in the BTWC section and does not mention the toxin in the separate CWC compliance report. The 2013 treaty compliance document still stated: ‘In 2004, Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said in a report on Syria that the Scientific Studies and Research Center had been developing ricin-based biological weapons’.

On the other hand, if the Syrian factory was indeed dedicated to the production of oil or lubricants, the possibility exists that it used a cold hydraulic pressing technique, in which case 1–5% by weight of ricin might remain in the resulting mash. A fact sheet on ricin by the OPCW Science Advisory Board (SAB) released in February 2014 notes that castor oil production plants are not subject to Schedule 1 inspections under Article VI of the CWC. The SAB therefore recommended that the Director-General encourage National Authorities in producing countries to promote hot pressing and other techniques that ensure inactivation of residual ricin in the waste mash. In other words, the Syrian amendment might reflect a compromise with the OPCW to remove any ambiguity about the purpose of the ricin resulting from a particular production process in view of the need for absolute certainty that all aspects of the country’s CW programme have been eliminated. A future oil-extraction plant using a process that inactivates residual ricin could then be constructed without the need for long-term verification modalities for that installation.

A possible explanation for the ricin factory declaration for sure, but more details are required to confirm the scenario. To be continued.

And the destruction of mustard agent?

As I reported in May, OPCW inspectors were looking into Syria’s claim earlier this year that it had destroyed some 200 tonnes of mustard agent in the spring of 2013. They are still trying to obtain further documentation substantiating these destruction operations. Onsite inspections of the disposal sites are still pending before this particular file can be closed.

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]


Syria: Disarmament in animated suspense

Syria has now missed about every single deadline since it was unable to move the Priority 1 chemicals out of the country by the end of last year. These even include renegotiated time frames and the self-imposed final date of 27 April. One more fixed date is pending: 30 June, by which time all precursor chemicals should have been neutralised.

It would now seem that the world will sigh with relief if everything is aboard the Danish and Norwegian freighters by the end of next month. US officials envisage 60 working days to neutralise the volume of precursor chemicals and hydrolyse the mustard agent on board the US ship Cape Ray. The end of this mission could be pushed back even further if factors such as bad weather or sea states exceeding safety standards interrupt activities. In addition, the original schedule foresaw incineration of the reaction mass by the end of 2014. However, one of the companies selected by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Finland’s Ekokem, requires at least nine months. This potentially pushes completion of the disarmament tasks agreed in the US-Russian framework agreement of September last year into the second quarter of 2015. Consequently, the disarmament mandate established by UN Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) can be expected to remain in place at least as long.

Similar delays affect the final destruction of former CW production facilities (CWPF). Different interpretations about the perimeter of several CWPFs block consensus decision-making on the formal destruction plan in the Executive Council of the OPCW, and hence progress in the field.

Finally, concerns have emerged whether Syria has declared its entire CW stockpile. In particular, the country has claimed destruction of 200 metric tonnes of mustard gas in March 2013, but initially failed to declare this to the OPCW.

Remaining precursor chemicals

Syrian authorities have consistently claimed that heavy fighting at key sites and high security risks along the transportation routes make it all but impossible to transfer the precursor chemicals to the port of Latakia within the set deadlines. The Joint OPCW-UN Mission has tended to confirm these security assessments. It has also reported shelling into Latakia in March and intensive combat operations around the final storage site.

According to the 7th monthly report submitted to the UN Security Council on 25 April, 96.45% of declared Priority 1 chemicals and 81.09% of declared Priority 2 chemicals had been moved onto the Danish vessel Ark Futura and the Norwegian freighter Taico respectively. Combined they amounted to 92.03%. The remaining 8%—about 100 metric tonnes of precursors—consisted of

  • Priority 1 chemicals:
    • B salt (N (2-chloroethyl)-N-ethyl propan 2 amine salt)
    • DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride)
    • Isopropanol
  • Priority 2 chemicals
    • Butan-1-ol (alcohol)
    • HCl (hydrogen chloride)
    • HF (hydrogen fluoride)
    • Hexamine

On 20 May, the OPCW–UN Joint Mission confirmed the destruction of all isopropanol. (It should be noted that ‘B salt’ did not figure in the initial list of precursors and was included in one of the revised declarations by Syria. It is possible that a declaration error was made concerning ‘BB salt’.)

The 7.2% of chemicals that must still be shipped out remain trapped at Al Sin. Very little is known about the military site, except for its identification as a CW production facility in the 3rd monthly report of last December (Annex, paragraph 15). ‘Al Sin’ features in a few combat reports by insurgent factions published to the internet on 20 March, and are described as depots or an airport. Some press accounts suggest that the chemicals are at an airbase.

Battalion 559 of the Syrian armed forces holds a storage base that fits the descriptions.  It is located about 63km to the northeast of Damascus along a major road travelling from the Adra suburban area in the general direction of Palmyra (Tadmur). About 14km to the south of Al Sin lies the Sayqal Military Airbase, which also houses several ammunition storage installations.

Al Sin has two major access routes (presumable the aforementioned main road going either northeast or southwest) and a secondary road travelling through the mountains. At present, the main access routes are unusable because they are controlled by insurgents or within easy targeting range of their heavier weaponry. The secondary road is impractical, considering that the DF has been transferred into large 2000-litre reinforced containers and the highly dangerous and volatile HF is contained under pressure in industry-standard cylinders. Transport in a large, escorted convoy along a mountainous track not only runs a high risk of accidents, the surroundings also offer many opportunities for ambushes. The Syrian army is currently mounting major military operations to clear (one of) the two principal routes out of Al Sin. Once achieved, the evacuation of the final precursors to Latakia is expected to be completed shortly afterwards.

Destruction of CW production facilities at an impasse

Political blockage over the destruction of Syria’s twelve CWPFs prevents progress on an important dimension of the elimination of the country’s chemical warfare capacity. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) refers to CWPFs in many articles and sections of the Verification Annex. Article II, 8 defines it in terms of equipment for producing or filling certain types of chemicals and buildings that house such equipment. They must be irreversibly destroyed under a detailed destruction plan, although some buildings can be converted under strict conditions to purposes not prohibited by the convention. Despite Syria’s request, the Executive Council of the OPCW has refused to authorise conversion of some facilities.

In contrast, CW storage facilities (CWSF) are discussed only in the Verification Annex, Part IV(A) in relation to the presence of CW, their verification and destruction. A party to the CWC must declare a CWSP’s name, exact coordinates and a detailed site diagram, including a boundary map and the location of bunkers/storage areas within the facility. It must also provide a detailed inventory of the CW they contain. No treaty provision, however, demands the destruction of CWSFs.

Syria has apparently five underground structures, tunnels shaped in the form of a staple. They comprise three major sections. Each of the two extremities offers entrance to the complex. However, only one of the arms is the actual CWPF; the two other sections Syria has declared as storage sites. Following extensive discussions with OPCW technical staff and onsite visits at the end of March, a CWPF destruction plan was proposed to the Executive Council, which it rejected. The United States and other members of the Western Europe and Other States Group represented on the Executive Council argued that the storage areas form an integral part of the production site, and that therefore Syria’s circumscription of the CWPFs is incomplete. In addition, the argument has been put forward that via a network of tunnels they link up to other parts of a larger military complex.

It is difficult to see how the impasse can be overcome soon. The Executive Council habitually decides by consensus. If the United States and its partners press for a vote, they are by no means certain of gaining a majority. Even if they do, there may be ramifications in other areas of treaty implementation further down the road. Syria, for its part, has adopted a very assertive posture since becoming an OPCW member last October and is unlikely to budge on anything that does not represent a formal, unambiguous obligation under the CWC or without pressure from Russia. The current frosty relations between Moscow and Washington are not helpful either.

 Did Syria declare all?

Over the past month or two several questions have arisen as to whether Syria declared its full chemical warfare capacity. They are in part due to the recent attacks with barrel bombs allegedly containing chlorine canisters, and in part to the amendments to its formal declarations to the OPCW. The latter are the result of normal verification routines by OPCW staff, which it undertakes for all parties to the OPCW. Analysis of declarations and onsite inspections often lead to the discovery of inconsistencies, contradictions or even missing information, which yield lists of questions and issues that the state party must resolve. Syria is no exception, and a significant new amendment to earlier declarations is expected in the near future. Although it will not contain new types of chemicals, there will be variations in the volumes of declared precursors without much changing the overall total of 1,300 metric tonnes. In contrast, it will include a thus far undeclared CW research centre near Damascus. (Readers of this blog will recall that the Executive Council and UN Security Council decisions of 27 September compel Syria to declare research facilities, even though this is not required by the CWC.)

A initial team of 8 OPCW inspectors left for Syria on 2 May and they were joined by an additional 5 personnel on 12 May to investigate the chlorine attack allegations. They can have access to the one site where the government has claimed that the rebels used a chlorine weapon, but until now have been refused entry into the rebel areas. Negotiations with insurgents to enable the safe transit of the precursor chemicals to the port of Latakia or for OPCW-UN Joint Mission staff to have access to sites in rebel-controlled territory are conducted through the office of Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and League of Arab States for Syria. While the office continues to function, Brahimi’s resignation on 13 May, effective at the end of the month, implies the loss of a lot of political clout with the insurgents. It’s impact on the disarmament process is unclear for the time being, but the convoys transporting the precursor chemicals and the OPCW–UN Joint Mission may face growing security and safety challenges if the current lack of progress continues for any significant length of time. Future investigations of alleged used of CW may also be compromised.

Another element that tends to contribute to the unease about Syria’s truthfulness is the fact that until today the government has not declared owning any of the Volcano rockets believed to have delivered sarin nerve agent against the Ghouta district last August. It did report two such missiles, but stated that it had found them and that it was not their possessor. Many countries and observers blame the Syrian military for the Ghouta attacks and other chemical strikes.

Finally, the questions if Syria has declared all its ‘weaponised’ warfare agents revolve around whether it has irreversibly disposed of about 200 metric tonnes of mustard gas. Syrian officials claim that the stock was destroyed at three sites in March 2013, around the time of the chemical attacks in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo and several months before the Ghouta sarin strikes. (No allegation of a mustard attack has so far been recorded.) Interestingly enough, Syria apparently mentioned these destruction activities before or during the US-Russian bilateral negotiations in Geneva last September, but the issue has only been picked up more recently. The Syrian government has now supplied the OPCW with details of these operations, which still require confirmation. OPCW inspectors plan to verify the claim and the veracity of its particulars by means of interviews, record analysis and on-site sampling. UNSCOM inspectors in Iraq during the 1990s occasionally had to resort to similar methodologies to determine whether the claimed volume of agent destroyed without international supervision corresponded to reality. Syria formally declared 20.25 metric tonnes of mustard agent (an amount relatively small compared to the overall volume of declared nerve agent precursors), which will be hydrolysed on board the Cape Ray. Inevitably, the episode has raised concerns among some OPCW members about possible undeclared ‘weaponised’ nerve agents.

More to follow over the next weeks, I am sure.

Postscript: Two hours after posting this contribution, the OPCW published an updated report on the status of CW disarmament in Syria.

[Cross-posted from The Trench.]