Syrian CW – “Funtional Destruction” | Charles Duelfer

Syrian CW – “Funtional Destruction”

The OPCW-UN inspectors for Syria have “completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable.” 

This is seven weeks after President Obama, in a dramatic prime time address to the nation announced that he was seeking Congressional concurrence for a circumscribed military attack on Syria intended to “degrade and deter.”  The turn of events is striking.

(I am setting aside the potential that Syria may have concealed some CW capacity because in any case would be greatly reduced even if it is not zero.)

How is it that a country that built up a large chemical weapons capacity to offset Israel’s nuclear capability suddenly in a matter of a few weeks, gives it up?   Maybe CW just wasn’t that useful.  Bashir al-Assad is clearly fighting for the survival of his regime.  Deterring Israel is not his biggest problem.  CW has not proved to be very effective in a civil war.  It brings down the wrath of the international community and is not very effective, even to break the morale of the opposition.  There are lots of other ways of killing people with “conventional” weapons.

It is also the case that Bashir al-Assad needs international standing and only the Russians are doing much to support him—and they seem to have made the case to him that his case would be materially improved if he gave up CW.  Lavrov certainly would not have suggested the idea of UN inspectors handling the Syrian CW case if he was not convinced that Syria would deliver and not do anything “stupid.”

What exactly did OPCW destroy?  They won’t say.  Unlike the Iraq case where destruction was detailed in reports to the UN Security Council, OPCW inspectors have made public no information about the specifics of what they destroyed.

Reportedly Syria has asked to retain some facilities that can be used in civil chemical industry.  Maybe that’s a good idea, maybe not.

We do not know what specific munitions have been declared or destroyed.  Did they destroy Scud missiles or just the warheads?

Did the Syrians declare munitions of the type that were used in the August 21 attack that was investigated by the separate UN team?   (I understand they did not.)  There are many details that would provide more confidence to the Security Council than the OPCW is revealing.  I suspect that when the UN Coordinator, Sigrid Kaag becomes more familiar with her brief, she may wish to provide more fulsome data to the Security Council…whether this is standard OPCW practice or not.  Syria is a special case, as the special resolution by the Security Council mandating this process (just last September 27th) makes clear.  It is not like the average party to the CWC.

Nevertheless, the achievement of the OPCW-UN team is remarkable.  One of the last remaining states with CW has now been removed from the list.  Remaining are Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan, and Angola.  (Israel and Burma have signed but not ratified the CWC convention.)  Egypt is now more prominent for its position.  If there weren’t so many other difficulties in and around Egypt, it might be expected to follow suit.

What is likely to become more evident is that CW in the hands of non-state actors will be a problem.  In Iraq after the removal of Saddam and during the insurgency, there were attempts by various actors to use rudimentary CW.

Moreover, it is still not clear that insurgents did not use CW in Syria.  The evidence points to Damascus for the major cases of use, but that does not mean the rebels have not indulged in CW as well.

This risk of non-state actors using CW underlines the value in getting the Syrian materials off the table.  This is a positive, if unplanned or predicted outcome.  Still, there are plenty of ways of killing people, and the prospects for an early end to the killing in and around Syria doesn’t seem any closer.

Finally, there remains the task of getting rid of the chemical agents and precursors.  These are extremely important and dangerous.  It remains to be agreed if they will be removed quickly from Syria to a country that can safely render them harmless.  Norway was a prime candidate but declined.  Apparently still mulling over the task are others including Belgium and Albania (not as odd as it sounds…its not far and they have had the experience of getting rid of their own CW inventory when they acceded to the CWC).





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