Tips and Tricks of Chemical Weapons Stockpilers: Syria

Wounded civilians arrive at hospital Aleppo, Syria, 2012. Image from wikipedia

On April 22, 2014 the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) declared that 86.5% of all chemicals and 88.7% of the most deadly “Priority 1” substances on a revised list, such as sulphur mustard and precursors for sarin, a nerve gas, had been boarded and removed from Syria. Since early April six consignments have been delivered to Latakia (Syria’s port) , a “significant acceleration”, according to the OPCW, after a long gap when very little had happened.

The next destination for the chemicals is a container terminal at Gioia Tauro in southern Italy, from where most of it will transfer to an American ship, the MV Cape Ray, which is equipped with two mobile hydrolysis units for neutralising the stuff. The Cape Ray, now in Spain, will then head for international waters with a ten-country security escort, and begin its work. Rear-Admiral Bob Burke, director of American naval operations in Europe and Africa, says that if the sea is fairly calm it should take about 60 days of round-the-clock processing to neutralise the chemical agents, making it just possible that the June 30th deadline for destroying all Syria’s chemical weapons will be met. Some worries linger, however.

The first is continuing disagreement between Syria and the OPCW over the destruction of production and storage sites. All the weapons-producing equipment inside has been smashed, but the Syrians are arguing only for “destruction by inactivation”, which means just locking some doors. But Michael Luhan of the OPCW says that while there is no definition for destruction of such structures in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), in OPCW “common law” it has come to mean “taken down to the foundations”. A compromise may be possible, but there is a danger of setting a bad precedent.

Second, Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says that a mechanism for future “challenge” inspections, something OPCW has never previously done, will be needed if Syria is to be certified as entirely free of chemical weapons. It remains possible that the regime has hidden stocks, which on past form it might use—and then blame the rebels for. The status of one chemical-weapons site, in an area the regime claims is too dangerous for removal operations, remains “unresolved”, says Mr Luhan.

Reports earlier this month that helicopters dropped bombs filled with industrial chlorine gas on the rebel-held village of Kfar Zita, injuring and terrifying dozens of civilians, suggest that the regime has not changed its ways. The attack was reported as a rebel atrocity on Syrian TV before it had even happened, says Ms Esfandiary. The use of chlorine gas is hard to prove. It is not banned under the CWC and it does not linger, making the extraction of evidence from soil samples almost impossible. That is one reason why no signatory to the convention has asked the OPCW to investigate. However, if use with intent to maim or kill could be established, it would be a clear breach of the convention. A further requirement of the convention is that signatories give a full history of their chemical-weapons programme, accounting for the scientists who worked on it and other countries that may have assisted it (in Syria’s case, probably Russia and Egypt). But Ms Esfandiary doubts that, with the architect of the programme still in power, the regime would reveal anything that might incriminate it in the killing of more than 1,000 people by sarin gas in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on April 21, 2013, a war crime for which it still denies all responsibility. Eliminating Syria’s

Chemical Weapons,  Getting There, Economist, Apr. 26, 2014, at 45.

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