Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction: Update 45

This week saw the opening of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Conference of the State Parties of the OPCW in the Hague on the 29th of November. The five-day conference was set to discuss the annual report of the OPCW, including an update on ongoing destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles, enhance international cooperation and assistance, promote universality and national implementation, and create a consensus on a budget for 2015. The opening session underlined the importance of the organisation and the implementation of the Convention in eliminating chemical weapons. Ahmed Uzumcu, Director-General of the OPCW, praised the widespread international support for the Convention and the extraordinary efforts of State Parties to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria over the course of 2014. In addition he expressed deep concern over the recent use of chlorine gas in Syria.

The opening of the conference was characterized by broad a sentiment of appreciation for the overwhelming success of the Syrian chemical weapon disarmament mission. Thanking the EU and many other State Parties for their financial and technical support, the US and Russian in particular for catalysing Syria’s accession to the CWC and the assistance of the United Nations in its joint mission with the OPCW, many national statements emphasized the urgent need to now complete the Syrian chemical weapons destruction operation. After these initial sentiments of success, worry of continued use of toxic chemicals as weapons on Syrian citizens was expressed by many State Parties. In addition, many State Parties revealed their continued support and commitments to the OPCW for completing the Syrian operations in the New Year. Furthermore the opening statement of Director-General Uzumcu hoped the international interest in the successful chemical disarmament of Syria would spur the six remaining states outside the Convention—Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan—to join promptly and without preconditions.

On Tuesday, December 2nd, UN disarmament chief Angela Kane urged Syria to increase its disclosure of its chemical weapons program, alleging that the present levels of disclosure foster suspicion. Moreover she implored full access to be granted to OPCW inspectors should Syria truly wish to convince the world it has declared and destroyed its entire chemical stockpile. This sentiment was reiterated at the OPCW Conference in The Hague by the British Ambassador Geoffrey Adams “urg[ing] Syria to use the opportunity of the team’s next visit to Damascus to provide credible evidence and documentation to support its assurances that is has fully abandoned its chemical weapons program.” These measures would increase confidence that Syria, 190th and most recent State Party to the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is indeed fulfilling the requirements of the Convention.

On Wednesday, December 3rd, the US delegation at the Conference accused the Syrian government of continued use of chemical weapons, as recently as September, on its civilians. US Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller revealed the existence of “compelling evidence that Syria continues to use chemical weapons systematically and repeatedly.” She cited key findings from the OPCW investigators demonstrating eyewitness accounts of regime helicopters indicating Syrian government responsibility. She concluded that the US remains “profoundly skeptical” of Syrian claims that it has declared all of its chemicals, munitions and facilities given the absence of declarations and records to corroborate these claims. US Ambassador to the OPCW, Dr. Robert Mikulak, also noted that the destruction of 12 chemical weapons production facilities is “limping along” and terribly behind schedule. Thus he demanded more monitoring of the situation.

Indeed it was revealed that the destruction of declared storage and production facilities in Syria has not yet even begun. It is expected that it will later this month (December) and will be completed in June 2015. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant cited “issues that need[ed] resolv[ing] in [the] declaration. In response the Syrian ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, told reporters that there is not any Syria chemical program now. Given this discrepancy many ambassadors present at the conference wanted a continuation of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission, despite expiration of its mandate in September. Ja’fari rejected the idea, claiming that outstanding issues were “purely technical” and thus do not require extension of the mandate.

On the side-lines of the conference, a meeting between Director General Üzümcü and Deputy Foreign and Expatriates Minister of Syria Faisal al-Miqdad, took place on Friday, December 5th, after the conclusion of the conference that morning. In the meeting al-Miqdad deemed it was now appropriate to “remove the exceptional nature of the Syrian chemical file as Syria has fulfilled its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.” Despite this he did reveal Syria’s readiness to continue cooperation with the ongoing OPCW inspections and Fact Finding Mission.

In the midst of the conference Pope Francis contradicted the sentiment enjoyed at the conference. On return from his visit to Turkey, and Syrian refugee camps there, Pope Francis told journalists “I don’t believe that Syria was capable of making chemical weapons. So who could have sold them to them? One of those who accused them?” Earlier this year former British Foreign Minister William Hague admitted that Britain had sold precursor chemicals to Syria in the 1980’s that would later be used to manufacture sarin. Pope Francis went on to say that he opposed the prospect of potential military action earlier suggested by the US and UK following the sarin attack killing almost 1,500 people in August 2013. The Pope has thus gone so far as to suggest that the “accusers” are those who are indirectly responsible for the chemical weapons attacks waged by the Syrian regime.