The publication of the 4th monthly report by the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month drew worldwide attention to Syria missing important interim deadlines for the removal of chemicals from its territory. US Ambassador Bob Mikulak’s head-on criticism of Syria’s procrastination at the latest OPCW Executive Council meeting reflected frustration shared by many states. The responsibilities Syria assumed under the US-Russian Framework agreement of 14 September, as a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and under UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013) include the removal of the Priority 1 chemicals by 31 December and the shipment abroad of all other declared chemicals with the exception of those it must destroy by itself (essentially isopropanol and the mustard agent residue in the original containers) by 5 February. The tripartite status-of-mission document, which stipulates the operational roles for Syria, the OPCW and the UN, was finally signed on 6 February. According to Resolution 2118, this agreement should have been concluded by 1 November. Being critical to organising the whole destruction process within the tight deadlines, the UN and the OPCW had already handed the Syrian government a proposal on 16 October.
Such developments should hardly come as a surprise. Ample historical evidence suggests that states will attempt to thwart coercive measures towards relinquishing weapon capacities, particularly if they do not view themselves as having been defeated. The key question, however, is how to appropriately counter such brinkmanship or gamesmanship. Past cases also illustrate how inconsiderate responses defeat the original disarmament design and shift the goal posts for all involved.
Hybrid disarmament and its consequences
While securing and eliminating a chemical warfare capacity in the midst of an armed conflict is without precedent, the hybrid disarmament framework set up to organise the endeavour is equally unique.
One aspect of the OPCW-UN joint project falls undeniably under the header ‘coercive disarmament’: the international community, spearheaded by the United States and Russia, demands Syria’s chemical disarmament. The original Geneva Framework Agreement of 14 September came about as an effort by Russia to avoid the military strikes threatened by France, the UK and the USA in retaliation for the chemical attacks against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August. Bashar al-Assad’s government acquiesced, fully realising that the bombardment of its conventional military formations and command and control infrastructure would irreparably weaken its military strength. The imminency of such air attacks has receded considerably, but their possibility in case of non-compliance with the disarmament obligations was not excluded from Resolution 2118. Paragraph 21 envisages measures in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter. At the end of January, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Damascus of military punishment under the resolution if it failed to speed up the removal of the chemicals from its territory. (Russia almost immediately rejected the warning.)
Coercive disarmament arrangements typically call for no-refusal, intrusive verification measures, such as comprehensive declarations and anytime, anyplace inspections. This characteristic is less salient in Syria’s case because of its accession to the CWC. Nevertheless, in its decision of 27 September (§2(d)) the OPCW Executive Council authorised the inspection at the earliest possible opportunity of any undeclared site identified by another party to the CWC. By assigning the Director-General responsibility for determining the seriousness of the claim, rather than reserving this task for itself (as with a challenge inspection), the Executive Council acknowledged the exceptional circumstances surrounding Syria’s disarmament. Similarly, should the Director-General report delays by Syria in fulfilling its disarmament requirements or lack of cooperation, the Executive Council is to meet within 24 hours and could decide on swift referral of the recalcitrant to the Security Council (§3(b)). The very tight final destruction deadline of 30 June—a mere nine months after the Geneva agreement—and the monthly requirement to report to the Security Council also testify to the coercive nature of Syria’s obligations.
The second dimension of the disarmament project is cooperative, the typical framework for treaty-based weapon elimination activities. Syria’s joining of the CWC as part of the deal underpinning the Framework Agreement ensured that the international community (rather than bi- or plurilateral actions, as initially favoured by the US) would assume responsibility for the dismantlement of the country’s chemical warfare capacities. The decision by the OPCW Executive Council of 27 September (shortly thereafter endorsed by UN Security Council in Resolution 2118) guaranteed that the verification of CW destruction and determination of intermediate deadlines would happen in line with relevant CWC provisions. Moreover, the cooperative framework has also opened the doors to international cooperation, financial assistance and operational support to secure, transport and eliminate Syria’s declared chemicals. Given the difficult circumstances of securing CW in war zones, the UN’s role in Syria also exemplifies the collaborative dimension. Whereas the OPCW bears prime responsibility for technical matters, the UN takes the lead in areas such as security and safety, diplomacy, logistics, communications, and so on. The OPCW–UN Joint Mission in Syria, which was set up on 16 October, guarantees unity of coordination.
The hybrid disarmament framework creates interesting pathways for enforcing compliance. On the one hand, the UN Security Council monitors progress through the monthly reports submitted by Ki-moon and briefings in New York by the Special Coordinator for the OPCW–UN Joint Mission, Sigrid Kaag. It has various options to compel Syria to meet its disarmament obligations at its disposal, including sanctions or the authorisation of military force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. However, as illustrated by Russia’s prompt reaction to Kerry’s warning last week, consensus among the veto-wielding permanent members is unlikely under the present circumstances.
On the other hand, the CWC has its own compliance enforcement mechanisms (Article IX). These include bilateral consultations between states parties and options to involve the OPCW decision-making organs, the Executive Council and the Conference of the States Parties. Among the tools available are clarification requests and challenge inspections (neither of which has been invoked thus far). Article VIII determines the powers and functions of both organs, including their respective responsibilities in reestablishing compliance. In cases of particular gravity and urgency, the Executive Council shall bring the matter directly to the attention of both the UN General Assembly and Security Council. (However, note the different pathway in §3(b) of the Executive Council decision of 27 September, as mentioned earlier.) The big difference is that before referral to the UN, consensus would have already been achieved in the Executive Council, making a veto in the UN Security Council most unlikely.
While the CWC suggests some possible actions, the Executive Council has considerable leeway in determining appropriate measures to redress non-compliance. Such measures need not necessarily be punitive. For example, having missed the ultimate destruction deadline of April 2012, Russia and the US are required to submit regular detailed updates to the Executive Council and a detailed annual report to the Conference of the States Parties. To further ensure ongoing commitment to CW destruction, an Executive Council delegation each year alternately visits Russian and US destruction sites. The OPCW, however, has not yet faced non-compliance with state-party refusal to cooperate. It would enter uncharted waters in such a case because the CWC does not prescribe specific corrective or punitive measures.
Resistance to coercive disarmament
Coercive disarmament is typically imposed by victors on the vanquished. Through the 1919 Treaty of Versailles the Allies compelled Germany to dismantle its chemical warfare capacity (which included handing trade and manufacturing secrets) and surrender its machine tool production equipment and heavy weapons. After Iraq’s eviction from Kuwait in 1991, UN Security Council Resolution 687 ordered the destruction of any weapons, infrastructure and equipment, and materials related to its nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic missile programmes under supervision of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In neither case did the party who lost the war feel vanquished. The Allies did not occupy German territory. In fact, on Armistice Day their troops had not even crossed into the country. In 1991, the US-led coalition ceased combat operations 100 hours after the start of the ground offensive without fully occupying Iraq and removing those in power. As a consequence, neither country felt defeated. The coercive disarmament measures felt unjust, and from the start—unconsciously or by policy design—resistance built up. In Germany, the industry led efforts to defeat the Allied design to confiscate its heavy machinery by destroying factory equipment and smelting the steel. While incurring the loss of their capital investments, they nonetheless preserved precious raw materials to rebuild the machinery at some future point. Meanwhile, as an unintended consequence, Allied verification of the dismantlement of Germany’s war production capacity collapsed and had to be abandoned.
In the belief that the UNSCOM activities would last for months only, Iraq immediately set out to thwart as much as possible any operations to uncover the nature and full scope of its chemical and biological weapon programmes. However, as the inspectors persisted and began to build an increasingly accurate picture, Saddam Hussein’s regime stepped up its obstruction and provoked a succession of political crises that required Security Council decision making. As the UN repeatedly sought to avoid recurrence of air strikes by the US-led coalition, Saddam Hussein was able to exact concessions that hollowed out the original Security Council mandate. In addition, US vacillation between enforcing Resolution 687 and removing Saddam Hussein from power challenged regime security from Iraq’s perspective, which took away any willingness to have the weapon files closed. For Saddam Hussein, resistance was not just a question of demonstrating steadfastness and resilience in the face of adversity. Preserving ambiguity about his weapon holdings became a matter of deterrence against hostile neighbours. Western doubts about UNSCOM’s efficacy in uncovering and dismantling the CBW and ballistic missile programmes paradoxically assisted Saddam Hussein’s survival strategy.
Despite the circumstances that led to the international effort to dismantle its CW, Syria does not feel vanquished nor, for that matter, that it is losing the war. Al-Assad’s decision to relinquish his CW was a short-term, but nonetheless strategic one to ensure regime survival. He views all follow-on actions through the same prism. At the Conference of the States Parties last December—Syria’s first as a party to the CWC—its delegation responded obstreperously to any suggestion of responsibility for the war carnage. That included the chemical attacks in Ghouta. Indeed, it almost presented its accession to the convention as a favour to the global community. With this mind-set, Syria does not consider it excessive that the global community is paying for the elimination of its CW. (Under the CWC a possessor state should bear the cost of disarmament.) Quite on the contrary, it even requested the OPCW to pay for the verification activities, a move that was strongly resisted by several states parties.
Syria’s regained assertiveness on the international stage is in no small measure due to the US-Russian Framework Agreement and the country’s subsequent accession to the CWC. As I have argued previously, multilateral disarmament presumes that all parties involved regard each other as equal partners. Syria consequently exerts its full sovereign rights as an OPCW member. For better or worse, a disarmament framework creates an environment that allows a perpetrator of war crimes to receive full consideration as a party to the treaty, while disengaging it from the consequences of its actions on the battlefield. In many respects Syria’s position recalls Iraq’s ability to address the Paris conference to restore the authority of the 1925 Geneva Protocol convened by French President François Mitterrand in January 1989, while Kurdish representatives were denied access.
Under those circumstances, it should cause little surprise that al-Assad seeks to challenge the coercive elements in the CW disarmament arrangements. He will not defy the overall obligations assumed under the CWC, but he is already thinking about his and Syria’s position after the war. Presidential elections are due to follow on the heels of the June CW destruction deadline. He realises that once the chemical precursors have been removed, Syria will no longer enjoy its current privileged situation. War crime allegations and international calls for justice will dominate the international agenda once more, and acute threats of military intervention will return. Engagement in the Geneva II negotiations may remain his only means to retain equal status with other members of the international community.
In order to avoid being seen as weak, domestically or internationally, he cannot cave in too easily to Western demands. Seeking concessions from the international community, whether by requesting various types of equipment, proposing alternative destruction methods for its former CW-related infrastructure, or trying to obtain delays beyond the pre-agreed deadlines, can easily be viewed as part of al-Assad’s broader strategy. The more he can provoke the West—the United States, United Kingdom and France, in particular—to issue warnings and threats of military strikes, the more he ensures the backing from the two other permanent members of the Security Council and hence his own survival. However, as said, he cannot afford to fall foul of the CWC lest he lose his (limited) international support.
This analysis does not wish to discount the real problems on the ground posed by the war fighting and the various technical and logistical challenges inherent in all complex undertakings. They are the objective explanations for the delays. Disarmament, however, also entails many little political games to frustrate the goals of another party. Such games are neither rare, nor unexpected. There are reasons why the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva remains deadlocked, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention hobbles along without a verification machinery, and the OPCW cannot adopt a long-term vision for the post-destruction phase of the CWC. In instances of coercive disarmament, elements of state or regime survival interfere with the demands to relinquish particular arms categories.
Outside of the CW or broader disarmament communities, questions will persist whether granting Syria partnership status in order to eliminate its chemical weapons weighs up against the ongoing massive human suffering. As argued in this posting, the partnership status enables certain types of political manoeuvring to achieve a better bargaining position at the negotiation table, and hence ensure regime survival.
While attention is currently focussed on some interim deadlines, one must not forget that Syria already lost its capacity to wage chemical warfare when installations, equipment and munitions necessary to prepare and deliver the toxic agents were rendered unusable. Within two months after the Geneva Framework agreement a recurrence of Ghouta became impossible. One cannot deny that preventing a war crime from occurring is preferable to decrying its consequences.
It remains my view that the deal on eliminating Syria’s chemical warfare capacity has helped to open the doors to formal diplomatic negotiations. It gave the international community common cause and it directly engaged various parties on multiple levels in order to set up and sustain the disarmament process:
- UN Security Council
- OPCW-UN Joint Mission
- In the field:
- International community (UN and Joint Mission) – Syria
- International community (UN and Joint Mission) – Insurgents (mostly via their respective proxies)
- Syria – Insurgents (for local cease-fires related to disarmament activities)
- Insurgents – Insurgents (idem)
- Formal framework for international assistance, with regard to financial support, removal, destruction, and security (the process currently involves about 40 countries).
It is a complex and delicate framework, which could easily be brought down by an inconsiderate move by any one of the parties involved. The agreed interim destruction deadlines intend to keep Syria under continuous pressure to meet its obligations. The country’s gamesmanship should be countered, but military threats should not be issued carelessly. Syria’s bluster was also on full display during the UN-sponsored meetings to seek an end to the civil war in Montreux and Geneva last month. Knowing their foe, opposition representatives retained their composure in the face of the verbal onslaughts. And they were even able to set the tone of one session by proposing at its start to share a moment of remembrance for all war victims. That is hope, the first spark of which was ignited by the international collaboration to rid Syria of its toxic weapons.