Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction: Update 22

As the 30 June deadline approaches for the chemical weapons to be transported out of the Syrian Arab Republic, 7.2% — about 100 MTs — still have yet to be removed; the remaining mix of “Priority 1” and “Priority 2” chemicals are stuck in a facility outside Damascus that has reportedly been too dangerous to access due to the ongoing civil war.

On 16 June, the report from the recent inspection into allegations of use of chlorine attacks on civilians was released at the Forty-Second meeting of the Executive Council of the OPCW.  The report concludes that “toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks.”  Having come to this conclusion, the team is planning the next steps to continue “closely monitoring the situation and using all possible means to gather information and data” about the alleged chlorine attacks.  While the inspectors will continue their work, it is currently unlikely that they will return to Syria, especially given the attack on their convoy during their inspections.

In a statement to the Executive Council, U.S. Ambassador to the OPCW Robert Mikulak raised issue with the continued delay on the part of the Syrian Arab Republic.  He said the U.S. and other countries had expected the 30 June deadline to be met and that “Syria has deliberately frustrated the Council’s efforts to complete the destruction” and missed a “parade of timelines.”  He called for the Council to “acknowledge that Syria has not met its obligations to remove these dangerous materials so that they can be destroyed.”  The statement on behalf of the European Union by Ambassador Teresa Angelatou of Greece expressed displeasure that Syria would not be meeting the deadlines set.  She also said the EU believes the “responsibility for this failure clearly rests with Syria…[and] stresses the gravity of the situation and the severe consequences the ongoing delays have on the destruction process.”

Concerns about the consequences of the delay on the destruction process were also voiced on an OPCW-led conference call with representatives of NGOs around the Mediterranean on 19 June.  In particular, the issue of the hydrolysis depending on the calmness of the waters of the Mediterranean was raised; the waters will become rougher as the summer progresses, which could prolong the process on the MV Cape Ray beyond the 60-90 days assumed for first-stage neutralization.  Additionally, while the American ship is to complete the process in international waters, it is unclear where the ship might dock if the ocean is too rough for hydrolysis or if there happens to be an accident on board.

NGO participants in this week’s OPCW conference call also called attention to the need for more public information and outreach, not only by the OPCW and UN, but also by national governments.  One NGO representative from Greece commented that the lack of public information only feeds public anxieties and suspicions.  All participants encouraged the OPCW to continue to organize regular conference calls with updates on the CW destruction process.

Also newsworthy this week was the report that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), otherwise known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL, had overtaken the Iraqi chemical weapons bunkers at the old military depot of Saddam Hussein, Al Muthanna, about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad.  These bunkers, filled with an unknown amount of chemical weapons, agents, equipment, and unexploded ordnance had been sealed by United Nations inspectors almost twenty years ago after the 1991 Gulf War.  Iraq had been working with the OPCW, US, UK, and Germany to evaluate the bunkers and their contents for possible future access and destruction, as required under the Chemical Weapons Convention.   To what extent the ISIS insurgents will be able to access these bunkers and their dangerous contents remains to be seen.