The team from the UN-OPCW joint mission who went to Syria earlier this month to inspect the allegations of chlorine use were attacked on Tuesday, 27 May. The first of three United Nations vehicles carrying the team from government controlled territory en route to Kafr Zita in the Hama Province of central Syria hit an IED. The team was moved into the remaining two vehicles but those vehicles were ambushed, hit by automatic weapons fire, and briefly detained by gunmen. The attackers are allegedly members of an offshoot rebel group, but it is unclear whether or not this is the case. The team has since returned safely to Damascus and will continue investigating the allegations of chlorine gas use. Director-General of the OPCW Ahmet Uzumcu strongly condemned the attacks and declared they would not prevent the OPCW from carrying out its mission.
The New York Times has obtained a May 23rd letter to the UN Security Council from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that calls into doubt the ability of the Syrian government to meet the agreed 30 June deadline for eradication of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. The letter mentions the remaining 7.2% of the chemicals remaining in Syria (about 100 metric tons), the 11 remaining open storage facilities, and the 13 remaining former production facilities as lending to this view. The Secretary General writes that “it is now evident that some activities related to the elimination of the chemical weapons program of the Syrian Arab Republic will continue beyond 30 June 2014.” This is the first official written admission that the destruction process will continue well into the summer and states that the joint mission will “continue its work for a finite period of time beyond 30 June 2014.”
The June 30th deadline refers to the agreement to remove and neutralize all of Syria’s chemicals on board the US Merchant Marine ship, the MV Cape Ray, by the end of June. Given that not all chemicals have yet been removed from Syria, and the ship-based neutralization process has therefore not yet begun, the June deadline will now be definitely missed. The neutralization process will take a minimum of 60-90 days, according to officials, so this first stage of chemical destruction now looks to run into August or September, perhaps even later. This, in turn, pushes back the land-based incineration processes in the UK, US, Germany, and Finland which were scheduled to be completed by 31 December 2014. The overall destruction process of Syrian chemicals could therefore slip into 2015 now.
Jean Pascal Zanders, author of The Trench blog and member of our own CWC Coalition, has written an extensive update on the progress of the Syrian chemical weapon destruction process. This follows his appearance last week on the Green Cross/Pugwash/CWCC panel discussion on Syria in Geneva, Switzerland. The video of this event is available on YouTube now.