Internationalisation of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile?

The idea of internationalising Syria’s stockpile is doable, but what would it take?

Some first thoughts to launch an international and constructive discussion

by Jean Pascal Zanders and Ralf Trapp

Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov launched an idea—in the meantime accepted by Syria—based on an offhand remark by US Secretary of State that Syria might avoid punitive military strikes if it were to ‘turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week’. He said:

We are calling on the Syrian authorities not only agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. We have passed our offer to [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid al-Muallem and hope to receive a fast and positive answer.

While the Russian proposal has its obvious attraction at the current stage of the international debate on Syria’s CW in the wake of the chemical attacks against the Ghouta district on 21 August, nobody should be under the illusion that it will be easy to develop and implement. Placing the CW under international supervision as the fewest possible storage sites can be relatively straightforward and completed within weeks, a few months at the most. Destroying them under international supervision, particularly with Syria not being a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), would be a far more complex political, legal and logistical matter. A specific legal framework would have to be created and logistics, already complex under normal circumstances, would have to be implemented under in the context of a civil war involving many independent factions and groupings.

This quickly drafted note tries to outline the contours of the types of actions that may be required to implement the Russian idea to have Syria place its chemical weapons (CW) under international supervision and to subsequently destroy the stockpile. The ideas have not yet been verified in function of international treaty provisions or international organisation procedures. Under the assumption that Syria will not become a party to the CWC anytime soon, the note lists a number of legal issues to be resolved, practical steps to be undertaken by various parties, and recommendations to avoid getting stuck in important, but under the present circumstances less pressing issues.

Should you have additional thoughts, comments or concrete suggestions with a view of developing this note further, do not hesitate to contact us.


Creating the legal framework

  • To the best of our knowledge, no similar proposal to secure and destroy a CW stockpile under war conditions has ever been undertaken before. Furthermore, the war is entirely internal to Syria, which means that preparation and execution of the plan must occur in cooperation with the Syrian government. For the security of international actors (e.g., peacekeeping force, UN staff, OPCW inspectors, operators of mobile destruction facilities, etc.) arrangements will necessarily have to be made with the various insurgent groups.
  • No legal framework exists to organise the type of activity that is being proposed for Syria. It may require a foundational document in the form of a UN Resolution (General Assembly or Security Council), similar to UNGA Resolution 37/98D (13 December 1982), which, building on the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use in warfare of chemical and biological weapons (CBW), gave the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) the authority to launch an investigation into alleged violations of the Protocol with the help of national experts. Its application during the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq war led to the creation of the UN Secretary-General’s Investigative Mechanism, which was activated in March 2013 with regard to the Syrian civil war. The Geneva Protocol might again serve as the foundation to construct an initiative as Syria is a party to this agreement, but not to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The proposed foundational resolution would give current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon the mandate the start working on the proposal and formally commit Syria to the process. The UN Secretary-General’s Investigative Mechanism itself rests on a resolution not just by the Security Council, but also by the General Assembly, thus offering it the endorsement of the global community. It is evident that further ideas will develop as the process evolves, which may require follow-on decisions.
  • The United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have signed two bilateral agreements that govern cooperation in the case the UNSG requests OPCW expert assistance in cases of alleged use. OPCW inspectors were on the UN team that visited Syria in the course of August 2013. However, the CWC does not contain any provisions that would allow the OPCW to verify CW holdings in a non-state party or oversee destruction operations. If the OPCW were to be invited to look into possibilities of providing assistance at the request of the UNSG, it is clear that the parties to the CWC would have to consent to any new proposal, which might be in the framework of existing bilateral agreements between the UN and the OPCW or which would create new responsibilities. The latter route would almost certainly require a treaty amendment and therefore be impractical. Even with the modification of the bilateral UN–OPCW framework, the OPCW may have to convene in a special Session of the States Parties to endorse it at the earliest possible moment. The current bilateral framework relating to the UNSG Investigative Mechanism already contains detailed provisions about safety and security of OPCW staff, compensation for costs, verification procedures and methodologies to be employed, etc.
  • The UNSC would have to approve the creation of a multinational intervention force, whose mandate would include the securing, guarding and protection of the CW stockpiles.


Steps that internationalisation of the CW stockpile might require

  • Full disclosure by Syria: The government must submit a most detailed report on its CW stockpile, locations of storage and related infrastructure (research, production, etc.). This information must include the types of chemical agents available, the volumes of each type of agent, inventory of the volumes stored in bulk or filled into munitions, types and numbers of munition and delivery systems, any other equipment specifically designed for use with chemical weapons. To build the trust of the international community, it will be absolutely imperative that this disclosure be as comprehensive as possible. The international community will not be able accept or tolerate a situation similar to the one in Libya, where after the end of the uprising the new government declared an additional stash of chemical weapons.
  • Verification of the declarations: the stockpile data submitted by Syria need to be verified by an independent body, e.g., the OPCW inspectorate.
  •  Secure the CW in as few places as possible: for reasons of security and safety, as well as reducing the logistics to destroy them, CW should be moved to the lowest possible number of storage sites. An idea to concentrate them all at or near Tartus where Russia still maintains important naval infrastructure should be considered seriously from a cost-benefit angle. Russia may have to allow multinational personnel or observers to the area in order to ensure that the international community remains convinced of the full integrity of the proposed arrangements.
  • Involve key allies of Syria: Russia and Iran are arguably Syria’s staunchest allies, but the West has some long-standing suspicions concerning their respective national security and geopolitical objectives. However, both countries are also key members of the OPCW and both have publicly stated their opposition to chemical weapon use. They can help the Syrian government in preparing the required declarations and probably assist in any relocation of CW stockpiles to a central storage point (if such would be one of the core intermediate objectives).
  • Involve the expertise of Arab parties to the OPCW: their participation would reduce local perceptions of foreign intervention. Several Arab states have direct links to either the Syrian government or one or more insurgent groups and can help to secure the necessary guarantees for the safety and security of the international staff that will operate inside Syria. The multinational force to be created under UN auspices could conceivably be proposed and coordinated by the League of Arab States.
  • Under the CWC, the destruction of CW is a national responsibility, whereby OPCW inspectors oversee the process in order to certify the irreversibility of the elimination. Several OPCW members (besides Russia and the USA) have that expertise, which could be applied to the Syria project.
  • Ask countries with mobile chemical waste or CW destruction technology immediately to see which (types of) installations are available at short notice and under which circumstances they could be deployed to Syria. Such installations are available in Germany, Japan and the USA, and probably in a number of other states too.
  • Organise a pledging conference to finance the operations.


Urgency versus political process

  • The proposed operations will be complex, costly and time-consuming. However, they are technologically and humanly possible, provided all energy of the international community can be directed towards problem-solving rather than raising all kinds of theoretical or conceptual problems. In the end, this international effort would strengthen the norm and international agreements against CW and their use in armed conflict much more than any military strike might be able to achieve. The operation, more than anything else under the present circumstances, could lay solid foundations to build a Middle East free from non-conventional weaponry, as desired by the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
  • The international community must decide at the earliest possible moment in its deliberations that the proposed framework will be ad hoc and applicable to Syria only, given the extraordinary circumstances inside the country. Any discourse or suggestion to have the mechanism apply to other states too (e.g., North Korea, Israel, etc.) will derail the current proposal.
  • The CWC declaration requirements cover more than CW stockpiles and installations. As this is not an operation requiring implementation of the CWC, decisions need to be taken on those types of data that are absolutely needed to fulfill this particular mission within the shortest possible time frame. While this will inevitably entail opportunity costs with regard to full declarations once Syria joins the CWC, at the present stage urgency will have to be one of the overriding concerns.
  • The international community should harbour no illusions that the proposed process will be a matter of days, weeks or even months. This process will be much more complex than the verification and destruction operations undertaken in Libya before, during and after the uprising there. In additional, equipment failure may affect any agreed time frames for milestones.
  • Much of the present debate has focussed on whether the Syrian government is culpable of the chemical warfare incidents near Damascus on 21 August. If the idea of internationalising Syria’s CW arsenal is indeed something the international community wishes to pursue, then careful consideration by the political and diplomatic communities should be given which goal has the overriding priority:  securing the CW stockpiles with Syrian cooperation in order to save the local population from future chemical strikes, or punishing Syria for an act – however hideous – in the past?

16 thoughts on “Internationalisation of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile?

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  16. nrerzsi

    Yesterday the Hungarian Minister of Defence, Csaba Hende announced that Hungary would be ready to send personnel trained in CW protection in the framework of an international mission to control the CWs in Syria.

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