Syria’s CW declaration: One third larger than assumed

On 28 October, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presented the first report on the destruction of chemical weapons (CW) in Syria to the UN Security Council (UNSC). The document also included the report by Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü to the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The monthly submissions are required under paragraph 12 of UNSC Resolution 2118. Both officials recorded significant progress since the adoption of the key decisions by the OPCW Executive Council and the UNSC on 27 September. They noted Syria’s cooperation, and listed the challenges ahead and the requirements to be able to meet the final destruction deadline of mid-2014.

Syria became the 190th party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 October, but had already accepted to be bound by decisions taken by the OPCW Executive Council before its accession. Those decisions related, among other things, to much shorter timelines for completing certain tasks than those indicated in the treaty text. As a result, preparations for CW destruction started almost immediately after Russia and the US concluded the Framework Agreement for the elimination of Syria’s CW in Geneva on 14 September. Syria announced its accession to the CWC on the same day.

One of the accelerated procedures concerned the provision of inventories and process descriptions relating to the chemical stockpiles, installations and equipment to the OPCW. Since 14 September Syria has handed over several documents. These disclosures progressively built a more complete picture of the CW programme and weapon capacities. With the assistance of OPCW experts the country was able to submit its formal ‘initial declaration’ on 23 October (four days ahead of the deadline of 27 October), as well as a general plan of destruction of CW and related installations. Syria’s initial declaration is apparently 714 pages long. Most of the information is confidential, and will formally remain so until Syria explicitly authorises its release.

The Executive Council of the OPCW will receive an initial formal briefing on Syria’s declaration on 5 November, before holding its key meeting of 15 November to decide on the destruction methods to be used, the various interim destruction deadlines, and the order of destruction. Also on the table will be whether it is technically, logistically and legally feasible to move the CW inventory in part or wholly outside of Syria. Based on these determinations, the Executive Council will then decide in which countries that have made concrete offers—reported to be Albania, Belgium and France—destruction of the warfare agents and precursors will take place.

Building a factual picture of the disarmament operation

Thus far, the public debates on the destruction tasks have been, and to a certain degree are still based on assumptions about the nature and composition of Syria’s CW and specific locations of CW-related facilities. Access to these sites in view of the civil war has been one of the most significant unknown variables in assessments as to whether OPCW-UN may achieve the ambitious CW destruction deadline, now barely eight months away. From this perspective, both reports are encouraging.

As the UN Secretary-General writes in the conclusion to his report, ‘The OPCW and the United Nations have managed within the brief time of the reporting period to establish a fully functioning Mission capable of confronting the challenging tasks and operating in a dangerous and volatile environment.’ He notes the progress, while acknowledging risks and challenges: ‘The functional destruction of the declared capacity of the Syrian Arab Republic to produce chemical weapons is expected to be completed as planned by 1 November 2013, a mere 34 days after the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013), with the possible exception of two sites that could not be accessed for security reasons.’ The concrete procedural achievements to date are:

  • The OPCW and the UN established a Joint Mission in Syria (JMIS) on 16 October. At the time of reporting, 26 OPCW experts and 50 UN personnel staffed JMIS, although numbers fluctuate in function of operational requirements. Both organisations also concluded a Supplementary Arrangement concerning cooperation between the United Nations and the OPCW for the implementation of Executive Council decision EC-M-3 3/DEC. 1 and Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) relating to the elimination of the chemical weapons programme of the Syrian Arab Republic. On that same date, Ban, in consultation with Üzümcü, appointed Ms Sigrid Kaag as Special Coordinator heading JMIS. In his letter to the UNSC of 7 October Ban outlined that the OPCW would lead in technical areas, whereas the UN would play a strategic coordination role and serve as an operational enabler for the mission. The latter responsibility includes support to overall coordination and liaison with the Syrian Government and opposition groups, security arrangements, logistics, information assessments, communications and outreach, and administration.
  • JMIS has started preparations for the establishment on Cyprus of a Joint Mission Staging Area and Support Base. This will be the principal working place for OPCW-UN international staff when in view of the security and safety risks their presence inside Syria is not strictly required. The Damascus office, established immediately upon the arrival of the OPCW advance team at the start of October, serves as an operations base. Personnel flies into Beirut before travelling by road to the Syrian capital. JMIS has therefore put arrangements in place in Lebanon to facilitate the transit of staff and equipment.
  • Syria has established the CWC-mandated National Authority, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. The OPCW had requested the appointment of a high-level official with the necessary authority to advance the implementation of the CWC in accordance with the destruction deadlines. Thus far he had been one of the principal spokespersons justifying government military actions.
  • On 16 October the UN and the OPCW handed the Syrian government a proposal for tripartite status-of-mission on modalities for cooperation, as requested under UNSC Resolution 2118. It should be signed by 1 November. The document will be critical to the organisation of the destruction of the warfare agents within the set deadlines, as it will stipulate the operational roles for Syria, JMIS and possibly UN member states. The UN seems to expect that JMIS will have to provide direct support to the planning and operations by the Syrian authorities.
  • The UN is consulting with the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding possible public health implications of activities associated with CW destruction activities.

Syria’s declarations on CW installations and equipment

Based on the OPCW Director-General’s report to the Executive Council of 25 October, Syria has submitted:

  • inventories of chemical weapons storage facilities (CWSFs), that include munitions, chemical agents and precursors;
  • information regarding components of binary weapons;
  • site diagrams for CWSFs, including buildings and their current condition;
  • site diagrams and process flow diagrams for certain chemical weapons production facilities (CWPFs);
  • information on the nature of activities conducted and current status of CWPF buildings and equipment, including fixed and mobile mixing and filling facilities;
  • information about the nature of activities at research and development facilities; and
  • information about the test and evaluation site.

Several times over the past weeks, the US press has reported on doubts among Washington insiders about the veracity of Syria’s declarations, because their intelligence points to at least 45 sites, whereas the Syrian documents only mention 23. When I learnt at the start of October that Syria had two clusters of installations just outside Damascus and Homs, I came to believe that the two figures were not irreconcilable. The Director-General’s report now confirms this assumption: Syria declared 41 facilities at 23 sites. A footnote furthermore explains that Syria’s original disclosure of 19 September listed 43 facilities. However, one CWPF had unintentionally been counted twice. An OPCW site visit furthermore found one of the disclosed CWSFs to be completely empty and it was therefore deemed not declarable as a CWSF.

The declared installations thus comprise 18 CWPFs (including fixed filling facilities), 12 CWSFs, 8 mobile filling units, and 3 CW-related facilities. According to Art. III(d) of the CWC, the latter category might besides the aforementioned test and evaluation site, include laboratories primarily designed for CW development. It should be noted, however, that paragraph 1(a)(iii) of the OPCW Executive Council decision of 27 September refers explicitly to ‘chemical weapons research and development facilities’, a term not defined or used in the CWC. (The phrase ‘Research and development laboratories’ features in a list of common infrastructure clarifying the notion of ‘Plant site’ in paragraph 6(a) of Part I ‘Definitions’ of the Verification Annex, but this has no bearing on the present discussion.) In a forthcoming paper to be published in the November edition of Arms Control Today, my co-author Ralf Trapp wonders whether the inclusion of the term ‘research’ was intended to avoid situations whereby facilities involved in CW research and development might be left undeclared.

At the time of writing, OPCW inspectors had not been able to visit two sites out of 23 for safety and security reasons. The bare statement, however, hides a much more complex picture. First, what types of sites are we talking about? These could be a CWPF or CWSF or it could be infrastructure that had once been used for CW-related activities, but since vacated. As mentioned earlier, Syria had listed one former CWSF in its declaration, which an OPCW inspection later assessed not to be declarable. Second, risk evaluation evolves permanently and takes several weighing factors into account. I assume that the international staff inside Syria would be prepared to face higher risks for an inspection of an installation at the heart of the CW programme than for one that according to formal declarations has little or nothing left. In other words, in each of those cases the ‘objective’ safety and security risks might be quite different.

What does this concretely mean with regard to the two non-visited sites? It is my understanding that one location has essentially been dismantled by Syria and the equipment was taken to another place. OPCW inspectors have verified the nature and provenance of that equipment and overseen its destruction. They still need to ascertain themselves that the site is factually empty. The question is whether they need to be physically present to achieve this goal, or whether they can rely on remote technologies to meet the objectives of first phase of the disarmament project.

By implication, the other site must have been more central to Syria’s CW programme. A newspaper article suggests that it may concern a site near Safira, southeast of Aleppo. Intense fighting since the beginning of October have made the town and its surroundings extremely hazardous to access. If correct, I presume that JMIS will continue to seek a cease-fire through discussions with the warring factions (and their external sponsors) in order to allow the inspectors sufficient time to verify Syria’s declarations and oversee the functional destruction of relevant equipment and infrastructure.

Syria’s declarations on chemical warfare agents

From the perspective of somebody using public resources to look at Syria’s CW arsenal,  the most striking element in the Director-General’s report is that the total weight of agent declared by Syria is one third higher than anticipated. The broad assumption had been that the country possessed around or just over 1000 metric tonnes of essentially mustard agent, sarin and VX and their precursors. (It is worth recalling that the CWC considers precursors to warfare agents as chemical weapons.) Public assessments have been remarkably stable since the mid-1990s. The French intelligence report published on 1 September after the Ghouta attacks listed several hundreds of tonnes of sarin, several tens of tonnes of VX and several hundreds of tonnes of mustard agent (subsequently reported to have been around 300 tonnes). Despite the vagueness of breakdowns such as the French one, it had been widely thought that sarin (and its precursors) made up the bulk of the agents.

According to the OPCW’s first monthly report, however, Syria declared just under 1,300 metric tonnes of chemical warfare agents:

  • approximately 1,000 metric tonnes of Category 1 CW (largely binary chemical weapon precursors). Category 1 chemical weapons comprise agents and precursors listed in Schedule 1 of the CWC. In other words, nerve agents such as sarin and VX, and the different types of mustard agent (including the sulphur and nitrogen variants mentioned in the French intelligence report).
  • approximately 290 metric tonnes of Category 2 CW, which refers to all warfare agents other than the ones listed in Schedule 1. The potential range is enormous, as it might cover anything from lachrymatory and incapacitating agents to first generation toxicants, such as phosgene or chlorine, or a spectrum of precursor chemicals needed to manufacture nerve and mustard agents. It is my understanding that the bulk, if not all, of Category 2 CW in Syria consists of isopropyl alcohol. This compound is produced in huge volumes across the world and has many legitimate civilian applications. Despite being a key precursor to sarin (which is produced by means of a reaction with methylphosphonyl difluoride, a Category 1 CW), it is not listed in any of the CWC schedules. As quantitative estimates always implicitly took into account that Syria stored a sizable part of its CW arsenal in precursor form, this volume of declared Category 2 CW is significant, about one quarter of the total agent volume declared.
  • approximately 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions, i.e., Category 3 CW.

Remarkably, the Syrian authorities also reported two cylinders believed to contain CW that do not belong to them.

The surprise of the larger volume of CW, however, is one for the outside observer. During the US-Russian bilateral discussions on the Framework Agreement, Syria provided the negotiators with details of its CW inventory. In other words, when the destruction deadlines were set  and when the OPCW Executive Council began weighing the tasks ahead, the 1,300 agent tonnes were always part of the deliberations.

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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.