Syrian Chemical Weapons Agreement Faces Major Obstacles

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A woman holds a portrait of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, as pro-regime supporters parade their cars in Damascus to celebrate Assad's 48th birthday on Sept. 11, 2013. Close

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A woman holds a portrait of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, as pro-regime supporters parade their cars in Damascus to celebrate Assad's 48th birthday on Sept. 11, 2013.

Syria must disclose the complete details of its chemical weapons and related facilities by next Saturday, a critical test of whether President Bashar al-Assad will comply with the U.S.-Russian accord on finding, securing and eliminating his toxic armaments.

The plan agreed upon by Russia and the U.S. is to follow a “tightly fixed schedule” that envisions international monitors taking control of Syria’s chemical weapons until they can be destroyed or removed from the country by mid-2014, a timetable that will be difficult to meet even if Assad’s regime cooperates.

There are gaps in what officially is called a “framework” that add to the uncertainties about whether it will deliver as promised by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. If Assad fails to comply, President Barack Obama will again confront the issue of whether to use U.S. military force.

“It’s a wait-and-see game at this point,” said Faiza Patel, a former official at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that oversees the Chemical Weapons Convention banning such arms.

“We’ll see each step of the way how cooperative the Syrians are, and how much political will there is in the international community to actually support this effort,” Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said in a phone interview.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov give a joint press conference in Geneva during their meeting on the Syria conflict, on September 12, 2013. Close

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov give a joint press conference in Geneva during their meeting on the Syria conflict, on September 12, 2013.

Syrian ‘Untrustworthiness’

An initial question is whether Russia can deliver Assad, an ally fighting to survive, whom the U.S. says was responsible for an Aug. 21 attack using the nerve agent sarin that killed more than 1,400 people.

“The Assad regime is the essence of untrustworthiness,” said Fred Hof, who last year served as Obama’s ambassador-at-large on the Syria crisis. “Whether or not this agreement is an actual breakthrough depends primarily on the actions of those who own this toxic devil’s brew and who have used it to kill innocent civilians.”

The deal was worked out between Kerry and Lavrov without some basic facts, including the size of Assad’s arsenal, where it’s located, and how and where it might be destroyed. Assad had no immediate comment on the agreement, which goes to the United Nations Security Council -- where Russia has a veto -- to compel Syria’s compliance.

“There can be no games, no room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance,” Kerry told reporters Sept. 14 in Geneva at a joint briefing with Lavrov. Obama retains his military options, Kerry said yesterday after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

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Demonstrators wave a Syrian flag decorated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's portrait during a protest in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Numbers Game

The U.S. and Russia haven’t agreed on the number of Syrian weapons sites, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. That will make it difficult to assess whether Assad has disclosed all of Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure, including the quantities and locations of the munitions, chemical agents and production equipment to be designated for destruction or removal.

Then it will be up to international monitors to try to verify the information. The accord says they should have “immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites,” language that could give them access to some of Assad’s most sensitive military locations. The initial inspections of sites declared by Syria are to be completed by November, according to the agreement.

Exploiting Technicalities

“Given Assad’s record, there’s every reason to think Assad will stall, that he’ll exploit technicalities, and that it would be likely that he would hide some chemical weapons, too,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

Once sites are identified, international monitors from the OPCW and UN “should be dispatched as rapidly as possible to support control, removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities,” according to the plan. The U.S., U.K, Russia, China and France -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- may provide experts to assist in the effort, according to the agreement.

“Assad may try to hide some of his CW stockpile, but it will be difficult for him to do so over the course of the inspections, which will be aided by U.S. and Russian intelligence on the nature and location and size of the stockpile,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

Limited Knowledge

U.S. officials, though, concede that their knowledge of Syria’s chemical arsenal is limited, in part because Syrian forces keep moving them. The U.S. has identified more than 40 sites where intelligence officials think the munitions are stored, but they are confident of fewer than half of those locations, said two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.

Nor is there certainty about the size of Syria’s chemical stockpile. While the U.S. estimates that Syria has 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents -- including sarin and mustard gas -- and precursor chemicals, Russia’s estimates are lower, and the two officials said both are largely guesswork.

Finding and securing all the facilities will be a challenge as fighting continues in a civil war in which more than 100,000 people have been killed. Kerry said inspections and verification are feasible because Assad now controls all of the weapons sites.

‘Probably Nil’

“I would be very very surprised if the regime allowed full access to all sites, let alone a process for getting these materials out of Syria for destruction,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Richard Butler, former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, said in an interview broadcast yesterday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” that “one of the very considerable difficulties” in Syria will be protection for inspectors.

Even if Assad complies on disclosure and access, destroying or removing the deadly chemicals is a challenge, particularly on a short timeline. The agreement calls for all production and mixing equipment to be destroyed by November.

“With ongoing fighting, the prospect of destroying chemical stocks in Syria is probably nil,” Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said by e-mail.

The State Department official who briefed reporters in Geneva declined to describe the mid-2014 target date as realistic, saying only that it’s possible.

Meeting Deadline

While destruction of specialized manufacturing equipment and unfilled chemical munitions can be done in Syria, Patel said the only way to meet the deadline for chemical agents such as sarin would be to remove them from Syria.

The accord says the “most effective control” of these agents “may be achieved by removal of the largest amounts of weapons feasible, under OPCW supervision” for destruction elsewhere. Destruction is done by incineration or chemical neutralization in specialized facilities to protect both the operators and the local environment.

“If you can get those toxic chemicals to a destruction facility that is already up and running, then, yes, I think there is a decent chance that they can be destroyed within that rough time frame,” Patel said.

No decision has been made on who would destroy the chemical stockpile or where, whether inside Syria or in another country, including the U.S., according to a second State Department official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks in Geneva.

Few Choices

There aren’t many choices. The U.S., which has been eliminating its chemicals weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention, has closed or is in the process of closing nine of its 13 chemical warfare agent destruction sites, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Further, shipping Syria’s chemical agents to the U.S. for storage and destruction may be barred by a law against transporting such materials across state lines, said Patel.

The U.S. wouldn’t want to see the chemicals shipped to a destruction plant in Libya, where Islamic extremists are still battling the government. In any event, that facility hasn’t be in operation since its heating element broke down in February 2012, according to the OPCW.

The most likely candidate to take Syria’s stockpile is Russia, Syria’s ally, which also has destruction facilities, said Patel.

Eliminating Iraq’s chemical weapons took most of the decade following the U.S.-led military assault that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991, as leader Saddam Hussein hindered UN inspectors and hid some of his systems. Iraq had no chemical weapons at the time the U.S. invaded in 2003.

Differences on Force

Kerry and Lavrov revealed that they differ over authorizing the use of force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if Assad fails to comply with the agreement.

Russia blocked a proposal by the U.S., supported by France and the U.K., that the Security Council require compliance under Chapter 7 from the start, providing a trigger for military strikes. Instead, the accord calls for violations to be referred back to the council, which only then would consider imposing measures under Chapter 7.

Lieber, of Georgetown University, said he doubts that even then Russia would endorse U.S. military action, as it did in effect when it abstained, rather than vetoing, a 2011 resolution that authorized a no-fly zone in Libya that led to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.

Lavrov indicated that Russia -- which has argued that rebel forces have used chemical weapons -- would be skeptical of negative reports from Syria.

“Of course, we will investigate every case, because there is a lot of false information, pieces of information, in the world, and we should be very cautious about every fact,” he told reporters in Geneva. “And when we are sure, 100 percent, then we in the Russian Federation will be ready to adopt a new resolution” to punish the perpetrators.

“It’s nonsense to continue the speculations on the matter,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Terry Atlas in Washington at tatlas@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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