In what quickly is becoming the real-life manifestation of the classic P. Diddy song, the situation in Syria swings from the cusp of war, to a major diplomatic breakthrough, and now on to uncertainty over the next stages.
First, let’s examine the status of the proposed U.S.-Russia framework to disarm Syria’s chemical arsenal:
- Syria declared its chemical weapon and facilities. (October 24, 2013)
- The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) completed site inspections of 21 of 23 facilities and continues destruction of mixing/filling/weaponizing equipment. (October 27, 2013)
- OPCW completed and verified functional destruction of chemical weapons equipment. (October 31, 2013)
- OPCW verified a 22nd site near Aleppo. (November 7, 2013)
- OPCW Executive Council adopted a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons by June 30, 2014. The plan included the transportation of Syria’s arsenal outside of the country for destruction in the “safest and soonest manner.” (November 15, 2013)
At this stage, the OPCW has nearly entirely eliminated President Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. While questions exist regarding destroying the specific chemical agents, the ability of the Syrian regime to weaponize and use chemical weapons has nearly vanished. This is a clear success for the framework and international moratorium against chemical weapons.
On November 18, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry stated at a press conference that the Department of State was evaluating two options for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. He did not give further details.
In the next days, newspapers began reporting that the two options under consideration are the use of mobile destruction technologies within Syria and/or at-sea destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal. The U.S. Department of State and OPCW also stressed that they are still working with other States to review destruction options.
If the OPCW uses the mobile destruction technology that has been developed, the facilities would be operational within ten days of reaching their location. This option allows for the weapons to be destroyed where they are currently stored and does not require shipment to another country. The concern is the risks associated with carrying out the sensitive destruction process during an ongoing civil war.
The at-sea destruction option includes incineration or hydrolysis units placed on ships that will neutralize the precursor and chemical agents under European Union and American environmental safety standards. Smaller scale at-sea destructions have been successful, most notably by Japan. OPCW would retain its verifying and inspecting role but it is unclear what nation/organization would provide the diplomatic status of the floating destruction location.
The major concerns about this approach are the necessity to ship the neutralized but still toxic chemical weapons to a port, opening the opportunity for the material to be stolen, “misplaced,” or captured. Additionally, there are significant security and environmental concerns. Supporters of the plan stress that the chemicals will be neutralized to harmless salts and solids.
Regardless of which destruction options are undertaken, the major concern is funding the OPCW’s operations. As of early November, OPCW had raised $13.5 million for its operations and that funding will run out by the end of November, according to a Reuters exclusive. Moving destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal offshore would certainly increase costs. Some countries have agreed to provide security and logistical support for the transportation of Syria’s chemical weapons. They could be convinced to provide similar support for at-sea destruction.
Logistical challenges are not the only issues complicating the U.S.-Russian framework to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. On November 5th, CNN reported that U.S. officials were reviewing intelligence that Syria had not been entirely truthful with its chemical weapons declaration or entirely cooperative with the destruction protocol established by the OPCW Executive Council. U.S. officials have suggested that Syrian President Assad is likely to want to preserve some chemical weapons capacity as a hedge against his perceived threat from Israel.
It is important to note that both the OPCW Executive Council decision and United Nations Security Council resolution had strong and speedy enforcement mechanisms for Syria’s non-compliance.
It is clear that there are a number of nagging issues that need to be resolved to completely eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal but in less than two months the functional capacity of one of the world’s largest chemical arsenals has been dismantled. This success is worthy of international celebration.