By Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
This week the remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons were shipped out of Syria, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The result? 100% of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed or removed from the country. This represents a significant victory, but many problems still remain – most notably, the continued use of chemical agents, which puts Syria in contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
Against all odds, and with some bumps along the way, on 23 June Syria handed over the remaining 7.2% of declared chemical weapons that had been held at the Al Sin military site. The chemicals, now on board the Danish Ark Futura, are en route to Italy, where they will be transferred onto the US MV Cape Ray for destruction at sea. The chemicals will be destroyed via hydrolysis, a process in which they are mixed and heated with water, sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite in order to neutralise them. It is estimated that the destruction process will take 60 days to complete – a two-month delay from the original June 30 deadline. Some of the less potent chemical agents will then be shipped for disposal at commercial facilities in various countries.
In the words of OPCW Director General, Ahmet Uzumcu, ‘Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes’.
But the Syria file is not closed. The OPCW could not confirm that all of Syria’s chemical weapons had been dealt with – only those that were declared. Uzumcu made it clear that the organisation sought to clarify parts of the Syrian stockpile declaration following similar requests by OPCW inspectors in early June. US, French and British intelligence allegedly shows that Assad did not disclose all of his poison gas stocks in Syria’s stockpile declaration. In addition, recent allegations that the government used barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas, which did not figure in the stockpile declaration, called the completeness of the declaration into question. Verifying all this will be difficult, especially given the civil war. The OPCW will avoid certifying that all chemical weapons have been removed unless it is certain of the fact, for fear that Assad could use hidden stocks and blame the rebels.
The problem is not limited to discrepancies in declared stockpiles. In early June, OPCW inspectors found evidence that ‘lends credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks’ in Syria. They were unable to pursue investigations because the site where the bombs were dropped came under attack.
The possession of chlorine, a commonly used cleaning agent, is not a violation of the CWC which prohibits the use, manufacture and possession of chemical weapons. Syria could argue that its possession is therefore allowed. The 1925 Geneva Protocol bans the ‘use in (inter-state) war’ of ‘asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases’, but the 1993 CWC broadened the definition of chemical weapons to include any chemical that can cause ‘death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm’. The possession of chlorine gas which is then loaded into bombs and used to cause harm is therefore contrary to the treaty. If Assad is found guilty of perpetrating these attacks, then Syria will have violated the CWC a few short months after it joined.
One other major sticking point in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons capability is the destruction of its production facilities. The September 2013 US–Russia deal calls for the destruction of all chemical-weapons production and storage sites, but it neglects to define 'destruction'. During past meetings with the OPCW, Syria has argued for 'destruction by inactivation': in other words, locking the doors. But the CWC explains that production facilities must be irreversibly destroyed, following a detailed destruction plan. While Syria has requested that some buildings be converted to purposes not prohibited by the convention, the OPCW has declined these requests. Although the CWC does not require the destruction of storage facilities, the proximity of storage areas to production areas in five underground facilities has led to an impasse regarding their destruction: Syria refuses to destroy them, while the OPCW’s Executive Council insists that the storage sites are an integral part of the production facilities. It is unclear how this stalemate will be resolved.
It is clear that this week saw a milestone in chemical weapons disarmament. Syria had the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the Middle East. Despite the scepticism surrounding the implementation of a US–Russia deal, if even a fraction of Assad’s weapons were destroyed then it was worth pursuing. Today, Syria’s chemical weapons capability has been seriously downgraded, but it has yet to be fully destroyed. The OPCW must continue pressing for clarification on Assad’s stockpile declarations and the destruction of production and storage facilities. More importantly, the government’s alleged use of chlorine gas must be addressed.