The Syrian CW Declaration…So far, so good | Charles Duelfer

The Syrian CW Declaration…So far, so good

Syria has taken the first critical step in the process laid out by Lavrov and Kerry last week in Geneva. Damascus made its initial declaration of its chemical weapons inventory and infrastructure to the technical secretariat of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Initial leaks are that it is in line with expectations. Recall that one very remarkable element of the Lavrov-Kerry meeting was that they agreed on a general assessment of the Syrian inventory. How often do US and Russian intelligence assessments agree?

The fact that Syria’s submission is not surprising. Lavrov is too shrewd to push this process this far and not be pretty confident that Bashar al-Assad would make good on private commitments to Russia about delivering a decent declaration. I suspect that Russia will keep the pressure on Assad as a way of building international legitimacy not only for Assad but for Russia’s defense of Assad.

The declaration will go to 41 countries tomorrow and naturally it will leak. Here are a couple things to look for:

Has Syria declared current stocks only, or have they detailed stocks they may have had but destroyed. Syria’s program is decades old. Agent manufactured in the 1970’s would likely be beyond is “best if used by” date. Probably they did not just toss their old mustard agent in the Mediterranean (though some countries, like Egypt were rumored to have done just that). In other words Syria probably has some CW destruction capability that it will declare. It will be interesting to see if that can be configured for destruction of their current stocks and mitigate the international problem of getting rid of the stuff. (Also, accounting for the production and disposition of decades of agent production will be very challenging, but it will be far easier if Syria has good accounting.)

Also, look for the designated locations. According to reports, Syria has been moving this stuff around pretty regularly. It will be interesting to see if they declare just the fixed permanent sites or whether there were other sites…perhaps taken over by rebels…that they declare. This could contribute to the Russian contention that rebels could have obtained Syrian CW. That would require some real scrutiny by inspectors because any such claim could be real difficult to verify. It could provide a “balancing entry” for discrepancies in inventory.

When looking at the list, also think about how you could phase the destruction activities. There are parts of any CW infrastructure that are vital and relatively easy to destroy such as key precursor chemicals (alcohol) and specialized production equipment (e.g. glass-lined reactor vessels). Getting the vital parts done quickly will presumably be a priority.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the immediate problems ahead have less to do with Syria than the UN and the Security Council. The roles and missions of the OPCW, the Security Council and individual members have yet to be ironed out. The OPCW Executive Committee was to meet last week, but the proposal for beefing up the inspection procedures for Syria was not yet agreed by Russia and the US. This week will be a jam of OPCW, the UN Security Council, and the UN General Assembly (Pity the Obama speechwriters who 14 days ago were drafting text justifying a military strike on Syria against the UN wishes. Now, they have a completely different story.)

A key disagreement is between the US and Russia over whether a UN resolution on Syrian CW disbarment would be passed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter or not. For Russia, passage under Chapter 7 means there is an explicit threat of military action for non-compliance. They hate that in general and with regard to Syrian in particular. The US has already said they are prepared to conduct a military strike unilaterally.

However, the US seems to think they need a Chapter 7 resolution to accommodate the more vigorous goals for Syria that go beyond the normal OPCW procedures for countries signing up for the CWC. For example, the CWC prohibits transferring CW to another country, but that’s one of the most likely avenues to get rid of Syrian CW, for example shipping to Russia or another European country for destruction.

Another example is that under the CWC, an inspected country can decline to admit inspectors it does not want…such as Americans. To make the inspection process more vigorous, Washington wants a Chapter 7 resolution irrespective of the use of force issue. This is a solvable problem, but it will take scribes time to work out language.

One big step that would help is naming a senior seasoned diplomat to run the special functions of Syrian disarmament. The right person can do a lot. In the end, decisions on the ground between the inspectors and the Syrians will drive progress and confidence. Probably this will mean someone who will report to both the UN Security Council and less importantly, to the Director General of OPCW. Watch the debate and agreement between the US and Russia on a chairman and his/her reporting arrangements.

Also, watch for other countries offering to participate in this effort. Multiple countries could assist in CW destruction. Getting the CW to fixed points and then to a secure site on the coast (perhaps a Russian base?) is not insurmountable.

It is still remarkable what Bashar al-Assad has undertaken. I doubt any American analyst would have predicted that step. Consider the internal debates in Syria. Bashar is ordering his civilian and military powers to give up their strongest deterrent against Israel among others. It is a big step that will crush the interests of many in the Syrian system, possibly creating severe internal dissent. What US president would order getting rid of nuclear weapons? Under what pressure? American leaders find it impossible to cancel any major weapons development program (no matter how expensive or impractical). This is a big deal for Bashar. He may be strengthened by it internationally, but also weakened by it internally. It will be interesting to watch.

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