Tackling chemical weapons in Syria

Civil wars by their nature give rise to extreme passions, the basest instincts, atrocities, and draw in external actors, material and volunteers. They may differ in scope, intensity and location. What they have in common is toll of suffering, death and destruction for combatants and non combatants alike, large numbers of internally displaced and those fleeing abroad seeking shelter whatever its hardships, and the extreme vulnerability of women, children and the elderly. Syria is no exception.
The global community faced with suffering from natural disasters, interstate wars, conflict in occupation zones and civil strife has become desensitized and seldom reacts effectively. At times there is a defining moment. In the long Spanish Civil war it was the attack on Guernica though it did not prevent its perpetrator General Franco triumphing. The Guernica atrocity depicted in Picasso’s arguably strongest work, lacked real time TV coverage to arouse global conscience.
The poison gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed some 1400 including many young children was such a defining moment. Who was responsible will continue to be argued but not that it happened or its significance. Confirmation by the UN Team of the use of Sarin gas confirmed what many instinctively feared, but has been overtaken by the joint American-Russian framework agreement in Geneva on divesting Syria of its chemical weapons and facilities .
How will it play out, will it work and what does it depend on are overarching questions. On a practical level the role and ability of the Organization of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to implement this disarmament task and the envelope to be provided by the UN Security Council will determine progress on this aspect of the civil strife.
The Geneva framework is preemptory in terms of what Syria must do and how the OPCW, which decides its own parameters, should carry out its role. This is understandable for two reasons. First to prevent or at least delay a potentially imminent military action by an already ambivalent America .Secondly in response to the gravity of the largest use of chemical weapons since battle of Ypres in World War 1 and the most significant since Iraq used them against Iran and then against its own Kurdish people at Halabja in 1988.There is a certain irony that America missed the Convention’s 2012 deadline for destruction of stocks and is aiming for 2023 albeit having destroyed some 90%, and Russia will complete this obligation in 2015.
Syria has deposited with the UN Secretary General its instrument of accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Under the Convention the accession would come into effect after 30 days on 14th October. As called for in the Geneva agreement Syria has asked that till the Convention comes into force it should be provisionally applied so that the OPCW can facilitate its obligations under the Convention to declare its stockpiles of chemical weapons, their precursors and manufacturing facilities.
The Convention has no provision for provisional application and this needs consideration by the Executive Council of the OPCW as its Turkish Director General has brought to the attention of the Member States while forwarding the letter of 12th September of the Syrian Foreign Minister. As the next regular Executive Council meeting is scheduled for 8th October the two powers have called for a special meeting of the Executive Council on Sunday the 22nd of September. The meeting was postponed a few times as a draft was not ready and also because under the rules of procedure notice has to be given for such meetings.
At that meeting they will present a Draft decision for adoption that will lay out all the requirements, the Special Procedures, that Syria must fulfill, the time frames for declaration expected within a week, destruction of stocks by mid 2014 and the implementation role of the OPCW. The key element will be to refer any non-compliance to the Security Council under Article X11of the Convention. Given the sponsors and the momentum the Executive Committee is expected to adopt the draft decision, by a vote if necessary, though some changes in the wording may occur in the negotiations. The decision of the Executive Council will then form the basis of a Security Council Resolution in which the use of force in the case of non-compliance has already become the main issue of contention principally between its Western backers and Russia as well as other countries mindful of consequences they had warned against in similar Western initiatives in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
The OPCW’s own inspectors have dropped to 100 from the 270 of two years ago due to the destruction of 80% of chemical weapons stockpiles. It can quickly ramp up by recalling 30 inspectors. However a far greater number will be required for Syria.
So far the OPCW has carried out only normal inspections of industrial facilities and of munitions destruction. Challenge inspections can take place under the Convention but can be overruled by a two-thirds vote of the Executive Committee and have never been held. The draft decision and the Security Council resolution to follow will seek to circumvent that requirement by giving unfettered access to the OPCW or whatever inspection mechanism is eventually worked out , probably an OPCW Plus beefed up by mainly P5 experts.
Getting rid of chemical weapons in conflict ridden Syria will be a complex undertaking, with the devil in the details. The political, legal, technical and financial aspects have to be put in the frame. Issues of access, safety, accounting and destruction will pose major problems for the OPCW inspectors. Negotiations in the Security Council and President Assad’s latest interview to an American TV network stating that at least one year will be needed for the destruction of stocks and asking for the probable billion dollars required for that purpose bear this out.
The upside is that hopefully a deterrent is put in place to spare the Syrian people of at least further such atrocities. The logic of starting a war to end another may be further eroded and more reliance given to resolving issues by dialogue. A principled position held by a number of countries including Pakistan which is presently playing its traditional active and responsible role in the Security Council as a non Permanent Member for its seventh such term. It would be optimistic to think a WMD free Middle East zone is any closer, but the two remaining CWC holdouts in the region, Israel and Egypt would now be under pressure to become parties and have less reason not to do so with Syria out of the chemical weapons equation.
The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat. Email: ambassador.tariqosmanhyder@gmail.com

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