Syrian CW – Major Progress Continues – Who’s Left with CW? | Charles Duelfer

Syrian CW – Major Progress Continues – Who’s Left with CW?

While US media fixated on the budget scrum in Washington, things have been moving ahead toward the goal of eliminating Syrian CW.


Status. On the ground, inspectors are continuing to inventory and verify Syrian facilities, equipment and munitions.  They are supervising and recording the destruction of the easy parts, i.e. the non-toxic parts, production/filling equipment, empty munitions and delivery mechanisms.  The UN Security Council gave them a deadline of November first. They are working towards that deadline with the constrained staff they have available.  Even if they are not able to meet that goal fully because of security or other reasons, they will have accomplished a big step.  There first report to the Security Council will be very interesting to see the list of material destroyed.


There will also be key decisions to be made about particular pieces of equipment and munitions to be destroyed.  Some equipment could be used for civil purposes and Syria could argue to retain some.  There may also be disputes over which munitions need to be destroyed.  For example, should just the CW specific warheads be destroyed or the missiles that launch them as well?  Look for discussion of these matters in the first report of the team.


Secretary Ban Ki Moon named the head for this activity just a few days ago.  The new Coordinator is Sigrid Kaag, who has solid UN experience and speaks Arabic.  She is not an expert in disarmament, but should be able to navigate the UN Security Council. She could use a good technical deputy.   I would note that the individual who headed the UNSCOM destruction group that destroyed an inventory probably bigger than Syria’s from 1992-1994 was a Dutch Army Colonel Chemical Weapons expert named Cees Wolterbeek.  He had a PhD in chemistry and did an extraordinary job with a team from Russia, US, Germany, France, and UK. He was great.


Norway–A player?  For less than the cost of one F-35, a major boost to international security?  

Behind the scenes now are discussions to find a country or countries that will accept for destruction some of the component chemicals of Syrian nerve agent.  There may also be some amount of mustard agent.  Norway is one potential participant.  This action would be a huge way to contribute to disarmament.  (Certainly the Norwegian Nobel committee–which is chosen by the Norwegian parlement would seem to agree. The five members decided to give the OPCW this year’s peace prize.) Wild statements about cost have been made, often by drawing comparison with the bills the Pentagon has run up to destroy the US inventory–$35 billion and counting.  If the Pentagon could find a more expensive way of doing it, they would have.

At the opposite end of the scale, I would note that UNSCOM eliminated the Iraqi inventory (albeit in Iraq and under different circumstances) for under $10 million.  My guess is that eliminating the Syrian inventory would cost Norway much less than a single F-35 aircraft—about half the price probably.  And the contribution to international security will be far greater.  Norway’s new government can make a real difference that would help both US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  


CW going the way of Small Pox.  It is important to recognize that the chemicals that are likely to be removed from Syria are the precursors to the nerve agent.  Syria’s nerve agent inventory was kept as a “binary” agent, meaning that for storage, the two components of the agent or “precursors” were kept separate, mixed only just prior to use—like epoxy glue.  One component is a type of alcohol and likely will be destroyed in Syria…its simple.  The other component, while toxic, is not a lethal agent itself.  This and some relatively small amount of Mustard agent may be removed from Syria for destruction.  It will be take careful planning to move the material to a port.  This seems the quickest and most secure way of destroying the inventory.


It is worth keeping in mind that the Syrian inventory is the last big chunk of known CW inventory in the world.  US and Russia are continuing their destruction efforts but their stockpiles are long since unusable.  Removing Syria’s inventory leaves only a few countries with likely, limited stockpiles.  We are very close to getting rid of a class of weapons—it reminds me of eliminating small pox.  Sure there are lots of ways of killing people left, but a particularly indiscriminate and ugly one is close to eradication.  One small bright spot in a region notably lacking in such things.


The countries outside of the CWC are:  Egypt, North Korea, Southern Sudan, and Angola.  Israel and Burma have signed but not ratified the CWC and do not participate in the OPCW inspections.


Therefore, the bulk of what remains are the undeclared inventories of non-CWC countries, most notably Egypt (and North Korea). Speculation about Israeli CW is weak.  Israeli nuclear deterrent would seem to remove their need for CW.  And there is the Israeli historical repulsion to chemical weapons from the Nazi era.

Assessments about Egypt’s inventory are more consistent.  Like Syria, Egypt has long had the military objective of countering Israeli nuclear potential (and North Korea off-setting the US and South Korea according to whatever logic applies in their thinking).  Egypt is the one country that now sticks out in the world as a CW outlier.  Given Egyptian internal uncertainties, it is unlikely they will act on this issue any time soon.


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