Last month, to everyone’s surprise, all the deadlines set by the deal on Syria’s chemical weapons were met by the parties concerned. This was a considerable achievement, and no easy feat. But it was just the beginning. Implementing the deal won’t be easy—in fact, the odds are stacked against it. The timeframe is sharply compressed, the environment hostile and the partnership dubious. Keeping to the timetable is essential to the success of the initiative, but it will get harder as the operation progresses.
Less than two weeks after the UN Security Council voted on a resolution to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) began implementing the first phase of the plan. On October 6, inspectors confirmed that “missile warheads, aerial bombs, along with mobile and static mixing and filling units, were dealt with” and that work would resume the following day. This was a good start, but it wasn’t the only good news.
Despite all the skepticism over the deal and steps to implement it, the US and Russia only took five days to agree on a framework for eliminating Syria’s CW, a plan which was endorsed by the UN Security Council on September 27. Russia and the US agreed on their assessments on Syria's stockpiles and outlined the accounting, inspection, control and elimination of the arsenal. What was remarkable was the timetable for the process: seven days for Assad to disclose its CW stockpiles and their locations, one month to destroy all production and mixing/filling equipment and conduct inspections on all declared facilities, and until June 30, 2014 to eliminate or remove all CW from Syria. Nothing like this has ever been tried, especially during a civil war.
Yet the first three deadlines were met. The joint UN-OPCW mission began the inspection of Syria’s facilities in October as it was waiting for Syria’s initial CW stockpile declaration and the plan for its destruction, which arrived three days ahead of the October 27 deadline. There was initial confusion over the variation in the number of facilities declared compared to Western intelligence estimates. But this was put to rest when the OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü, confirmed that Syria declared forty-one facilities at twenty-three sites—consistent with US estimates.
Syria also joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on October 14. Noteworthy, given that the Assad regime had consistently denied possessing CW until the end of the summer. By early November, twenty-two of Syria’s twenty-three declared facilities had been inspected. Syria also “completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants”. This largely prevents Assad from deploying his stockpiles and producing more chemical weapons.
Despite all the positive news, destroying Syria’s CW might just be the greatest challenge to the CWC yet. The task has UN and OPCW inspectors quivering in their boots.
Remember, Assad has the fourth-largest CW programme in the world: 1300 tons of chemical warfare agents, including nerve agents such as sarin and VX, and different types of mustard agent. They are spread throughout Syria. Inspectors have travelled to twenty-one of the twenty-three sites, but they could not get to all of them because it was too dangerous. No verification and destruction effort has been tried in such hostile conditions before.
Inspectors would be targets for anyone eager to derail the process. The Assad regime is tasked with guaranteeing their safety, but how can they do that in areas not under their control? In fact, on October 7, Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said the government could not guarantee the safety of the international inspectors in areas controlled by the rebels. The inspectors will have to negotiate ceasefires to be granted safe passage to such areas. When they could not travel to a facility because it was too dangerous, the OPCW reassured us it was able to verify destruction work remotely, but this limits their control of the process.
The destruction of CW equipment and delivery mechanisms was always going to be the easy part. The next phase will involve transporting and eliminating the agents themselves—Not as simple as using construction tools to decommission machinery or crush a rocket. Some CW destruction will require incineration. But not all facilities have incinerators. Other agents, such as the sulphur mustard, can be neutralized by using chemical reactions to produce less-toxic waste products.
For safety, security and logistical reasons, it would be better to move agents to fewer locations for destruction. Ideally, they would be moved all the way out of Syria. But the stockpiles are large. Transporting CW is difficult and risky, even more so during war. Russia, which has the closest facilities, and arguably the greatest responsibility, has refused to accept a Syrian CW transfer, as has Norway. Albania, however, expressed willingness to accept Syria’s arsenal for destruction at its US-built incineration plant at Qafemolle. But we still face the same problems as before: how do you transport more than one thousand tons of chemical agents out of a warzone safely?
Finally, it’s important to note that the process relies on Damascus’ goodwill. Although declarations appear consistent with Western intelligence estimates of Syria’s CW, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, we don’t know what we don’t know. Muammar Gaddafi kept a small stock of CW and Saddam Hussein tried to do the same. Imagining that Assad would do the same is not far-fetched. After all, a great deal of time, money and effort went into developing this arsenal.
Although all the deadlines have been met so far, every milestone in the implementation of this plan gets tougher. The greatest challenges of destroying Syria’s chemical agents and doing it on time are yet to come. But the current momentum must be built upon to ensure its success, because even if a fraction of Assad's chemical weapons capabilities can be destroyed, then it must be pursued.
Dina Esfandiary is a research associate, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, at The International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Image: Flickr/Andrew Mason. CC BY 2.0.