Syria: Disarmament in animated suspense

Syria has now missed about every single deadline since it was unable to move the Priority 1 chemicals out of the country by the end of last year. These even include renegotiated time frames and the self-imposed final date of 27 April. One more fixed date is pending: 30 June, by which time all precursor chemicals should have been neutralised.

It would now seem that the world will sigh with relief if everything is aboard the Danish and Norwegian freighters by the end of next month. US officials envisage 60 working days to neutralise the volume of precursor chemicals and hydrolyse the mustard agent on board the US ship Cape Ray. The end of this mission could be pushed back even further if factors such as bad weather or sea states exceeding safety standards interrupt activities. In addition, the original schedule foresaw incineration of the reaction mass by the end of 2014. However, one of the companies selected by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Finland’s Ekokem, requires at least nine months. This potentially pushes completion of the disarmament tasks agreed in the US-Russian framework agreement of September last year into the second quarter of 2015. Consequently, the disarmament mandate established by UN Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) can be expected to remain in place at least as long.

Similar delays affect the final destruction of former CW production facilities (CWPF). Different interpretations about the perimeter of several CWPFs block consensus decision-making on the formal destruction plan in the Executive Council of the OPCW, and hence progress in the field.

Finally, concerns have emerged whether Syria has declared its entire CW stockpile. In particular, the country has claimed destruction of 200 metric tonnes of mustard gas in March 2013, but initially failed to declare this to the OPCW.

Remaining precursor chemicals

Syrian authorities have consistently claimed that heavy fighting at key sites and high security risks along the transportation routes make it all but impossible to transfer the precursor chemicals to the port of Latakia within the set deadlines. The Joint OPCW-UN Mission has tended to confirm these security assessments. It has also reported shelling into Latakia in March and intensive combat operations around the final storage site.

According to the 7th monthly report submitted to the UN Security Council on 25 April, 96.45% of declared Priority 1 chemicals and 81.09% of declared Priority 2 chemicals had been moved onto the Danish vessel Ark Futura and the Norwegian freighter Taico respectively. Combined they amounted to 92.03%. The remaining 8%—about 100 metric tonnes of precursors—consisted of

  • Priority 1 chemicals:
    • B salt (N (2-chloroethyl)-N-ethyl propan 2 amine salt)
    • DF (methylphosphonyl difluoride)
    • Isopropanol
  • Priority 2 chemicals
    • Butan-1-ol (alcohol)
    • HCl (hydrogen chloride)
    • HF (hydrogen fluoride)
    • Hexamine

On 20 May, the OPCW–UN Joint Mission confirmed the destruction of all isopropanol. (It should be noted that ‘B salt’ did not figure in the initial list of precursors and was included in one of the revised declarations by Syria. It is possible that a declaration error was made concerning ‘BB salt’.)

The 7.2% of chemicals that must still be shipped out remain trapped at Al Sin. Very little is known about the military site, except for its identification as a CW production facility in the 3rd monthly report of last December (Annex, paragraph 15). ‘Al Sin’ features in a few combat reports by insurgent factions published to the internet on 20 March, and are described as depots or an airport. Some press accounts suggest that the chemicals are at an airbase.

Battalion 559 of the Syrian armed forces holds a storage base that fits the descriptions.  It is located about 63km to the northeast of Damascus along a major road travelling from the Adra suburban area in the general direction of Palmyra (Tadmur). About 14km to the south of Al Sin lies the Sayqal Military Airbase, which also houses several ammunition storage installations.

Al Sin has two major access routes (presumable the aforementioned main road going either northeast or southwest) and a secondary road travelling through the mountains. At present, the main access routes are unusable because they are controlled by insurgents or within easy targeting range of their heavier weaponry. The secondary road is impractical, considering that the DF has been transferred into large 2000-litre reinforced containers and the highly dangerous and volatile HF is contained under pressure in industry-standard cylinders. Transport in a large, escorted convoy along a mountainous track not only runs a high risk of accidents, the surroundings also offer many opportunities for ambushes. The Syrian army is currently mounting major military operations to clear (one of) the two principal routes out of Al Sin. Once achieved, the evacuation of the final precursors to Latakia is expected to be completed shortly afterwards.

Destruction of CW production facilities at an impasse

Political blockage over the destruction of Syria’s twelve CWPFs prevents progress on an important dimension of the elimination of the country’s chemical warfare capacity. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) refers to CWPFs in many articles and sections of the Verification Annex. Article II, 8 defines them in terms of equipment for producing or filling certain types of chemicals and buildings that house such equipment. They must be irreversibly destroyed under a detailed destruction plan, although some buildings can be converted under strict conditions to purposes not prohibited by the convention. Despite Syria’s request, the Executive Council of the OPCW has refused to authorise conversion of some facilities.

In contrast, CW storage facilities (CWSF) are discussed only in the Verification Annex, Part IV(A) in relation to the presence of CW, their verification and destruction. A party to the CWC must declare a CWSF’s name, exact coordinates and a detailed site diagram, including a boundary map and the location of bunkers/storage areas within the facility. It must also provide a detailed inventory of the CW they contain. No treaty provision, however, demands the destruction of CWSFs.

Syria has apparently five underground structures, tunnels shaped in the form of a staple. They comprise three major sections. Each of the two extremities offers entrance to the complex. However, only one of the arms is the actual CWPF; the two other sections Syria has declared as storage sites. Following extensive discussions with OPCW technical staff and onsite visits at the end of March, a CWPF destruction plan was proposed to the Executive Council, which it rejected. The United States and other members of the Western Europe and Other States Group represented on the Executive Council argued that the storage areas form an integral part of the production site, and that therefore Syria’s circumscription of the CWPFs is incomplete. In addition, the argument has been put forward that via a network of tunnels they link up to other parts of a larger military complex.

It is difficult to see how the impasse can be overcome soon. The Executive Council habitually decides by consensus. If the United States and its partners press for a vote, they are by no means certain of gaining a majority. Even if they do, there may be ramifications in other areas of treaty implementation further down the road. Syria, for its part, has adopted a very assertive posture since becoming an OPCW member last October and is unlikely to budge on anything that does not represent a formal, unambiguous obligation under the CWC or without pressure from Russia. The current frosty relations between Moscow and Washington are not helpful either.

 Did Syria declare all?

Over the past month or two several questions have arisen as to whether Syria declared its full chemical warfare capacity. They are in part due to the recent attacks with barrel bombs allegedly containing chlorine canisters, and in part to the amendments to its formal declarations to the OPCW. The latter are the result of normal verification routines by OPCW staff, which it undertakes for all parties to the OPCW. Analysis of declarations and onsite inspections often lead to the discovery of inconsistencies, contradictions or even missing information, which yield lists of questions and issues that the state party must resolve. Syria is no exception, and a significant new amendment to earlier declarations is expected in the near future. Although it will not contain new types of chemicals, there will be variations in the volumes of declared precursors without much changing the overall total of 1,300 metric tonnes. In contrast, it will include a thus far undeclared CW research centre near Damascus. (Readers of this blog will recall that the Executive Council and UN Security Council decisions of 27 September compel Syria to declare research facilities, even though this is not required by the CWC.)

A initial team of 8 OPCW inspectors left for Syria on 2 May and they were joined by an additional 5 personnel on 12 May to investigate the chlorine attack allegations. They can have access to the one site where the government has claimed that the rebels used a chlorine weapon, but until now have been refused entry into the rebel areas. Negotiations with insurgents to enable the safe transit of the precursor chemicals to the port of Latakia or for OPCW-UN Joint Mission staff to have access to sites in rebel-controlled territory are conducted through the office of Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and League of Arab States for Syria. While the office continues to function, Brahimi’s resignation on 13 May, effective at the end of the month, implies the loss of a lot of political clout with the insurgents. It’s impact on the disarmament process is unclear for the time being, but the convoys transporting the precursor chemicals and the OPCW–UN Joint Mission may face growing security and safety challenges if the current lack of progress continues for any significant length of time. Future investigations of alleged used of CW may also be compromised.

Another element that tends to contribute to the unease about Syria’s truthfulness is the fact that until today the government has not declared owning any of the Volcano rockets believed to have delivered sarin nerve agent against the Ghouta district last August. It did report two such missiles, but stated that it had found them and that it was not their possessor. Many countries and observers blame the Syrian military for the Ghouta attacks and other chemical strikes. [Note: the suggestion that Syria reported Volcano rockets as abandoned chemical weapons has been corrected in a new posting of 11 August.]

Finally, the questions if Syria has declared all its ‘weaponised’ warfare agents revolve around whether it has irreversibly disposed of about 200 metric tonnes of mustard gas. Syrian officials claim that the stock was destroyed at three sites in March 2013, around the time of the chemical attacks in Khan al-Assal near Aleppo and several months before the Ghouta sarin strikes. (No allegation of a mustard attack has so far been recorded.) Interestingly enough, Syria apparently mentioned these destruction activities before or during the US-Russian bilateral negotiations in Geneva last September, but the issue has only been picked up more recently. The Syrian government has now supplied the OPCW with details of these operations, which still require confirmation. OPCW inspectors plan to verify the claim and the veracity of its particulars by means of interviews, record analysis and on-site sampling. UNSCOM inspectors in Iraq during the 1990s occasionally had to resort to similar methodologies to determine whether the claimed volume of agent destroyed without international supervision corresponded to reality. Syria formally declared 20.25 metric tonnes of mustard agent (an amount relatively small compared to the overall volume of declared nerve agent precursors), which will be hydrolysed on board the Cape Ray. Inevitably, the episode has raised concerns among some OPCW members about possible undeclared ‘weaponised’ nerve agents.

More to follow over the next weeks, I am sure.

Postscript: Two hours after posting this contribution, the OPCW published an updated report on the status of CW disarmament in Syria.