Significant progress toward dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has been made in a short period of time, but significant challenges and a looming deadline remain. The disarmament process provides several lessons to be learned, and the deal which made disarmament an option offers key insights into the viability of diplomatic solutions to difficult problems.
In just under a month, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has inspected 21 of the 23 chemical weapons sites reported by the Syrian government. The two remaining sites have not yet been accessed by inspectors due to security concerns.
Syria submitted its formal program declaration three days prior to the October 27 deadline set by the Executive Council of the OPCW. The number of sites initially inspected diverged greatly from international estimates. However, Syria’s formal declaration has revealed a total of 41 facilities, including 18 for production and 12 for storage, at the 23 locations being inspected – a number much closer to original expectations. The possibility that the Assad regime may be concealing sites is just one of the many challenges facing OPCW inspectors, the United States and other nations in their efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
When the OPCW was tapped as the party responsible for overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in a time of civil war, many expected that the small organization would be overwhelmed. However, the inspectors have made staggering progress in verifying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Inspectors have visited 21 sites and rendered inoperable almost all of the vital equipment necessary to weaponize Syria’s chemical arsenal. Additionally, the 27 inspectors have surveyed the 1,300 ton stockpile of precursor chemicals and nerve agent. The final two sites have proven to be more challenging to survey owing to their location in rebel-controlled territory.
For its part, the U.S. has contributed $1.5 million in assistance from the State Department’s Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund to purchase ten armored vehicles to transport inspectors. An additional $6 million has gone toward the overall disarmament effort. The U.S. has also been trying to find locations to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Officials have approached Norway which initially considered the proposal but later determined that it lacked the necessary infrastructure to destroy the weapons before the deadline.
Denmark has since offered funds and assistance in the destruction of hundreds of tons of the stockpile, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Suggestions have also been made that Russia’s naval base at Tartus, Syria could be a possible location for the neutralization of the stockpile; in fact, an initial proposal, which was rejected by Russia, suggested shipping the precursor agents from the Tartus base to Russia for destruction. As of right now, no location has been determined.
With the site inspection phase of the disarmament process rapidly coming to a close, what can be learned so far?
The most obvious lesson is that the international norm against the use of chemical weapons has been reaffirmed by the outrage and subsequent calls for action against Assad and Syria. Calls for military action led to the next lesson learned: diplomatic options always exist if one looks hard enough. The ongoing disarmament process, the mechanism for which was worked out between the United States and Russia, is not without challenges but it has led to significant progress in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons program without the use of military force.
Of course, trying to conduct weapons inspections in the middle of a civil war is dangerous. The final two declared weapons sites have yet to be inspected due to security issues, and United Nations inspectors came under sniper fire in September while trying to investigate the site of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack. In its recent press conference, the OPCW admitted that it has not yet ventured into rebel-held territory.
Destroying a 1,300 ton chemical weapons stockpile is an enormous undertaking. Few countries in the world possess the necessary infrastructure to neutralize a weapons stockpile that is arguably the largest in the Middle East; even fewer countries are willing to take on such a burden. The schedule for destroying Syria’s massive stockpile is ambitious and incredibly tight. Maintaining security for chemical weapons facilities, overseeing weapons transportation to destruction facilities and destroying the weapons in a timely manner are all further complicating factors. Moving the weapons will also present challenges because the Chemical Weapons Convention forbids the international movement of weapons, so exceptions will need to be made for such an option to proceed.
The coming weeks and months will reveal whether or not Assad will make good on his commitments to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal. The success of the disarmament process depends upon the truthfulness of the Syrian regime in disclosing all of its chemical weapons facilities, which some reports indicate could possibly be as high as 50. However by the actions of the OPCW Executive Council and United Nations Security Council, a mechanism has been put into place for addressing opposition to site inspections as well continuing verification of Syria’s compliance.
The U.S.-Russia deal demonstrates that diplomacy is a valuable tool and though it won’t be easy, provides the best hope to eliminate the Syrian chemical-weapons threat.