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Explainer: how will Syria’s chemical weapons be destroyed?

Hard to get rid of: the US still hasn’t destroyed its chemical weapons stockplie. US government

Bashar Assad’s decision to sign up Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) last week committed his country to verifiably give up the possession of chemical weapons and their production capabilities.

Other countries with chemical weapons - Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, South Korea and the US - have previously signed up to the CWC and similarly committed themselves to destroying the weapons and associated manufacturing facilities, and to do so within a set timescale.

That the US and Russia have yet to complete the destruction of their chemical weapons, and have overrun their deadlines for doing so, places into context the significant challenges likely to be associated with such a process in Syria. The delay in the US and Russia is primarily explained by safety concerns, and the associated costs of destroying chemical agents and related munitions in a safe and secure manner in specialised facilities.

It will be the responsibility of the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the international organisation set up to verify signatory states’ compliance with the Convention – to verify the process of disarmament in Syria. This process will involve a series of steps, similar to that performed by UN inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s when the Saddam Hussein regime was ordered by the UN Security Council to dismantle all WMD and related production capability following the 1990-91 Gulf War.

How the process works

First of all Syria has to provide a declaration of its current chemical weapons holdings and production facilities. This declaration will provide the OPCW with the basis upon which to begin verifying and accounting for Syria’s chemical weapons capability.

The declaration will then be subject to investigation by the OPCW. This will primarily involve onsite inspections, although it can be expected that third parties such as the US, France and the UK will provide the OPCW with intelligence-derived information to assist with its investigations. Indeed, Syria has been the subject of intense scrutiny by external intelligence agencies in recent months because of concerns over both chemical use and the security of the weapons themselves.

Map of the August 21 chemical attack.

The extent to which Syria’s declaration matches up with what the OPCW subsequently finds on the ground will provide an important signal of the regime’s intent to live up to its commitment to chemically disarm. Any major discrepancies between the declaration and what the OPCW finds will create a lack of confidence in the regime’s CWC undertaking. Comparisons would be made with Iraq’s Full Final and Complete Declarations of the 1990s - which were repeatedly proven incorrect by the UN weapons inspection process. As the US-Russia agreement of September 14 has put a deadline of November on the OPCW completing its initial inspections, Syria’s intent will be put to an important test relatively early in the process.

Challenging environment

The fact that a civil war continues to rage in Syria is likely to impact upon the OPCW’s verification work. It may constrain the ability of inspection teams to move freely around the country and to do so in a safe and secure fashion. Under the US-Russia agreement, “primary responsibility” for the security of the “monitoring and destruction mission” lies with the Syrian government, but working in conjunction with Russia, the US, the OPCW and the UN.

Chemical shell after Ghouta attack. Brown Moses

Weapons inspections can be a pressured enough exercise in benign environments, let alone in contexts where the security of international personnel is going to pose a real challenge. The current internal security situation in Syria is very different to that which the UN experienced in Iraq in the 1990s. In that situation Saddam Hussein’s regime remained steadfastly in control before and after the inspectors departed the country prior to Operation Desert Fox in December 1998.

If the OPCW is able to perform inspections in a timely and relatively unrestricted fashion and Syria’s declaration is verified - either with or without significant discrepancies - the next step will be destroying the country’s chemical weapons capability. Manufacturing infrastructure can be dismantled or destroyed in situ, or it can be re-tasked to peaceful uses and then subject to ongoing monitoring. But it remains unclear at the time of writing whether the weapons themselves will be destroyed in Syria, or if they will be shipped out for destruction elsewhere.

The US-Russian agreement notes, “the most effective control of these weapons may be achieved by removal of the largest amounts of weapons feasible, under OPCW supervision, and their destruction outside of Syria, if possible”. The “if possible” caveat is significant. Iraqi and Libyan chemical weapons were destroyed in-country, so the Syrian regime may well expect, or insist, that the same thing happens there.

Finally, returning to timelines, the US-Russia agreement does include some challenging deadlines. Initial on-site inspections are to be completed by November while production and mixing/filling equipment is to be destroyed by November. The program calls for “complete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014”.

The tight schedule clearly reflects serious security concerns and the desire to quickly establish control over Syria’s arsenal and production capability, and then to eliminate it. But given US and French government estimates of the size of the Syrian chemical inventory, and the need to destroy it in a safe and secure manner, these timelines may well be subject to slippage.

If the OPCW uncovers discrepancies in Syria’s declaration and there are concerns about potential concealment of chemical capability, then this will add a further complicating factor with implications for the timeline.

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