Not so dead lines

If ever you had the impression that things had calmed down over the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW), you may be in for a bad surprise. The already frenzied pace of developments has just picked up again.

On 15 November the OPCW decided on the timelines for the destruction and removal of Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) capacity. In parallel developments, countries that had been hoped to host the destruction operations kindly thanked the United States for the honour and politely refused. It basically left the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—aka the global community—with very few options: destruction operations inside Syria or move them to the sole space on this planet not controlled by a government, a risk-adverse parliament or a NIMBY civil society, namely the high seas. In practice, it looks increasingly probable that the United States will take charge of out-of-Syria destruction operations using off-shore facilities (ships or platform).

Actually, the feasibility of the ultimate deadline of mid-2014 originally set in the US-Russian framework agreement of 14 September has always hinged entirely on the removal of CW from Syrian territory. This much is now clear. An operational planning group comprising 30 experts with different backgrounds prepared a scenario for the safe removal of Syria’s CW between 6–9 November ahead of the EC decision. As summarised by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü,

The operational planning group has presented a scenario which can lead to the rapid, sequenced packaging and transport of chemical agents from Syria for destruction. Conditions of safety and security are absolute prerequisites for the success of such a plan. Due regard must also be paid to the protection of people and the environment at every stage of the process of transportation and destruction. International norms and standards applicable to the transportation of hazardous material will have to be fully upheld.

This demand for high public health and environmental safety standards in Üzümcü’s summary precludes fast methods of chemical agent disposal, including ones devised and improvised by UNSCOM to destroy Iraq’s CW during the 1990s. However, if off-shore destruction is contemplated, the question remains what standard the OPCW will maintain. Will destruction operations take place on the high seas or in territorial waters? On which international laws relating to the disposal of toxic waste at sea will the OPCW base its standards? What happens if OPCW members involved in the destruction operations are party only to some or none of the international treaties governing environmental security at sea? Questions for future consideration as more details emerge, I am sure.

On 21 November, the OPCW published a Request for Expression of Interest (EOI), which invites commercial companies to participate in the disposal of approximately 798 metric tonnes of chemicals and an estimated 7.7 million litres of effluent. The tables, together with elements in the EC decision of 15 November, contain clues as to the makeup of Syria’s CW arsenal (see below).

New concepts

The OPCW is coining its own disarmament terminology as it decides on how to proceed with the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacity. After Üzümcü introduced the notion of ‘functional destruction’ in the sense of rendering equipment useless or inoperable in his report of 25 October, the EC decision of 15 November ushers in the follow-on term of ‘effective destruction’ for warfare agents and precursor chemicals.

The CWC uses the term ‘destruction’ without any qualifying adjectives. Verification Annex IV(A), section C clarifies destruction as ‘a process by which chemicals are converted in an essentially irreversible way to a form unsuitable for production of chemical weapons, and which in an irreversible manner renders munitions and other devices unusable as such’.

Both new concepts must thus refer to intermediate steps in the elimination of Syria’s CW, and the deadlines stipulated by the Executive Council are consequently not the ultimate ones as understood from the treaty text. This difference is clear from the decision text:

  • deadlines for activities to be carried out on Syrian territory are referred to as ‘completion dates’ (§2);
  • the ‘effective destruction’ of mustard agent and key binary weapon components (outside Syrian territory) excludes the destruction of the resulting reaction mass, for which the Executive Council is to determine the time frame at a later, but as yet unspecified date. Consequently, ‘effective destruction’ must be semantically synonymous with ‘chemical neutralisation’ (§3(a)); and
  • for all other declared chemicals, ‘destruction’ is used without any qualifiers, meaning that this elimination process must be completed by 30 June 2014 at the very latest (§3(b)).

I have listed the different deadlines in the EC decision of 15 November in chronological order.

The US-Russian Framework Agreement of 14 September presented the international community with a tough time frame for the elimination of Syria’s chemical warfare capacity in return for indefinite deferment of military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Many a voice expressed concerns about the feasibility of the proposed plan. While the OPCW and the UN Security Council adopted the key elements of the Framework Agreement, one easily sensed that the OPCW was looking for ways to extend certain types of activities beyond the mid-2014 deadline agreed by Moscow and Washington. In particular, an early version of the draft decision to be presented to the Executive Council on 15 November cited in a press report proposed to have the most dangerous materials degraded ‘to chemicals not suitable for use in chemical weapons’, followed by ‘completion of destruction not later than 30 December 2014’.

Bearing redlines in mind, the tight final deadline has always always been the key ingredient enabling the Obama administration to resist mounting international and domestic pressures for punitive military strikes in retribution for Syria’s CW use in August. In other words, no official document can therefore be seen to push back the final deadline of the Framework Agreement, however sound the arguments in favour of more time might be. Hence, a first need for semantic creativity regarding ‘destruction’. Or, how deadlines become lifelines.

A, B and BB

[Some of the information in this section has been updated.]

CWC destruction parlance divides chemical weapons into three categories, which I have touched upon in an earlier blog posting. In contrast to the Director-General’s report to the Executive Council of 5 November, the EC decision of 15 November does not contain the CWC-defined word ‘category’. For example, §2 does not refer to ‘unfilled munitions’ as Category 3 CW. In contrast, conversations inside the OPCW building refer to the novel concepts of ‘Priority 1’ and ‘Priority 2’ chemicals. The terms relate to those chemicals that need to be removed from Syria before 31 December 2013 and 5 February 2014 respectively.

Adding to the puzzle is the open mentioning of mustard agent and the two key precursors to sarin, DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride) and isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol), whereas other key binary components are identified only by the codes A, B, BB (including BB salt) in order to preserve confidentiality regarding Syria’s declaration. In all likelihood, the codes refer to precursors of the V-agent family (presumably VX based on a Soviet/Russian formula). Correlated with the EOI, the codes might thus stand for (requires confirmation!):

  • A: Sodium-o-ethyl methyl phosphonothionate
  • B: N (2-chloroethyl)-N-ethyl propan 2 amine (solution 23-64%)
  • BB: N (2-chloroethyl)-N-isopropyl propan 2 amine (solution 23-64%)
  • BB (salt): N (2-chloroethyl)-N-isopropyl propan 2 amine (salt)

The EOI lists in its third area of interest the disposal of the effluent ‘aqueous solution containing o-ethyl methyl phosphonic acid’, which is indicative of hydrolysis of V-agent compounds. The mustard agent, both sarin precursors and coded V-agent precursors make up the ‘Priority 1’ chemicals. It looks increasingly as if the United States will assume responsibility for their destruction.

The EOI’s list of compounds consists mainly of chemicals that play a role in the startup of the development or production of chemical warfare agents or are intermediate-stage precursors. I have grouped them according to the type of warfare agent in a separate table.

What do we now know?

[This section is a guesstimate intended to guide further investigation and discussion. Any comments or corrections are most welcome.]

[Some of the information in this section has been updated.]

The use of different terminologies, codes and figures, as well as the overall confidentiality governing Syria’s declaration, make it difficult to draw a definitive picture of the chemical warfare programme and capacities. Some of the compounds listed in the EOI are quite common and have widespread industrial or commercial use. Since Syria declared them to the OPCW, we must assume that one way or another they were related to the CW programmes, whether as part of the research, development or production components. (With regard to ‘research’, recall that the CWC does not mention the term, but the decision of 27 September requires the destruction of ‘research and development facilities’.) Nonetheless, we should be open to the possibility of Syria having declared particular items to avoid any possible ambiguity.

The baseline figure is the declared 1,290 metric tonnes of chemicals, which include warfare agents and precursors. Of these, 290 tonnes are isopropyl alcohol (in documents also referred to as isopropanol or propan-2-ol).

The total weight of chemicals in the EOI is 798 metric tonnes. The key question here is whether this figure is an integral part of total declared amount, or whether there is a partial overlap. The main reason for raising the question is that the EOI includes 120 tonnes of isopropyl alcohol. According to the EC decision of 15 November, this substance is to be destroyed inside Syria before 1 March 2014. So, why would only a part be contracted out for disposal to a commercial company? One good reason might be that a significant portion is located in areas too dangerous for contractors, and its destruction would consequently be the sole responsibility of Syrian entities. An alternative explanation might be that Syria declared the 290 tonnes as a direct precursor to sarin (i.e., specifically dedicated to sarin manufacture), while the 120 tonnes had different purposes, but the country declared them nonetheless to avoid any type of ambiguity.

Sulphur mustard, of which Syria was presumed to own a few hundred tonnes, and the sarin precursor DF are not mentioned in the EOI’s areas of interest relating to disposal. (They are obliquely referred to in the third area of reference relating to the disposal of effluents). While there are detailed listings of V-agent precursors, no formal statement has ever been made as to whether Syria has declared stockpiles of any quantity of final V-agent. Earlier assessments assumed the possession of a few tens of tonnes.

What do the numbers suggest:

  • Equal volumes of isopropyl alcohol and DF are used to create sarin. However, taking molecular weight into account, 290 tonnes of isopropyl alcohol would require around 600 tonnes of DF. The listed estimated volume of effluent resulting from incineration of DF (4.4 million litres) suggests the same range. 600 tonnes also corresponds to comments that DF makes up the bulk of the declared chemicals, but refutes some suggestions that the entire declaration was made up of DF.
  • The 300,000 litres of sulphur effluent may result from the hydrolysis of 300 tonnes of sulphur mustard. That volume falls within the range of estimates circulating prior to Syria’s accession to the CWC.
  • The 1.2 million litres aqueous solution containing o-ethyl methyl phosphonic acid may result from the hydrolysis of some 2-300 tonnes of V-agent. The range seems to correspond with the combined weight of the V-agent precursors listed in the EOI, even if one accepts that the final warfare agent would weigh less that the combined weight of the precursors.

That brings us to the of 900–1,200 tonne range, allowing for some wide margins (the figures in the EOI too are approximate quantities).

If we now add up the weight of the chemicals not directly related to sulphur mustard and nerve agents, we arrive at a total of 203 tonnes. Assuming that the 120 tonnes of isopropyl alcohol in the EOI are comprised in the 290 tonnes, this would bring the total range to 1,100–1,400 tonnes. However, if we take out the general alcohols, hydrogen chloride and hexamine (see another posting for their potential relevancy), both margins are lowered by 143 tonnes (i.e., 957 and 1257 tonnes respectively). The latter substraction would not be illogical, as §3(b) of the EC decision of 15 November does refer to ‘other declared chemicals’ (see above).

As already cautioned, these numbers are a guesstimates at best. Moreover, they assume that all the intermediate precursors for nerve agent production contribute to the overall estimates for sarin and V-agent precursors (which are derived in part from the volumes of effluents).

However, if more or less correct, the guesstimates seem to suggest that the chemicals and their respective volumes in the EC decision of 15 November and the EOI describe Syria’s CW stockpile as declared to the OPCW.

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.