OPCW Eliminates Syria’s Chemical Weapons

November 14th, 2013 - by admin

David Morrison / David Morrion.org – 2013-11-14 00:46:37


“I think it is extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday, within a week of the resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were already being destroyed. I think it’s also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly, as they are supposed to. Now, we hope that will continue. I’m not going to vouch today for what happens months down the road, but it’s a good beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning.”
— US Secretary of State, John Kerry

(November 5, 2013) — Syria became a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 October 2013, having deposited an “instrument of accession” with the UN Secretary General thirty days earlier, as required by the Convention.

Well before that, on 21 September 2013, Syria had provided the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body for the Convention, with an inventory of its chemical weapons and their locations, and the locations of its production facilities. With Syria’s co-operation, OPCW inspectors were on the ground by 1 October 2013 beginning the process of verifying the correctness of this inventory and supervising the destruction of weapons and production facilities.

OPCW decision
Prior to the OPCW beginning work in Syria, its 41-state Executive Council passed a formal resolution on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons [1] (referred to by the OPCW as a “decision”) authorising its staff to proceed. This aspired to complete the disarmament in the first half of 2014, as suggested in the framework document [2] agreed by John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on 27 September 2013. However, the decision says that this is “subject to the detailed requirements, including intermediate destruction milestones, to be decided by the Council not later than 15 November 2013”.

A state joining the Convention prior to its coming into force on 29 April 1997 was allowed 10 years to complete the destruction of its weapons, though a 5 year extension could be applied for (Article IV(6)). Both the US and Russia were given a 5-year extension until 29 April 2012, but both failed to destroy all their weapons by that date — and are therefore technically in breach of the Convention.

A state like Syria joining the Convention after the normal 10-year destruction period (that is, after 29 April 2007) is required to destroy its weapons “as soon as possible” and “the order of destruction and procedures for stringent verification for such a State Party shall be determined by the Executive Council” (Article IV(8)). The OPCW will set all this out by mid-November.

Meanwhile, in its decision the OPCW set as an immediate objective to “complete as soon as possible and in any case not later than 1 November 2013, the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing/filling equipment”, so that no more weapons can be manufactured.

According to the OPCW website [3], it achieved that objective and at the time writing (5 November 2013) it had conducted verification activities at “21 out of 23 sites identified in Syria’s disclosure”.

Exemplary Co-operation by Syria
Syria’s co-operation has been exemplary, as was to be expected since it is in the Russian interest that the disarmament process be completed quickly and without a hitch — and Syria doesn’t want to offend Russia, its chief political ally.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, was even moved to say at a press conference in Bali alongside Sergey Lavrov on 7 October 2013:
“I think it is extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday, within a week of the resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were already being destroyed. I think it’s also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly, as they are supposed to. Now, we hope that will continue. I’m not going to vouch today for what happens months down the road, but it’s a good beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning.” [4]

It was almost like old times, when in the early years of the first Obama administration Senator John Kerry, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acted as Obama’s emissary to Bashir al-Assad and met him on five or six occasions in Damascus. See Daily Telegraph article John Kerry and Bashar al-Assad dined in Damascus, 3 September 2013 [5], which quotes Kerry saying in March 2011 that, when “I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States” (including the purchase of land for the US Embassy in Damascus, the opening of an American cultural centre, non-interference in Lebanon’s election and the improvement of ties with Iraq and Bahrain) he “had met each one”. Assad was a man of his word, according to Kerry. The feeling was apparently mutual with Assad saying in 2010 that he “trusts” Kerry (see YouTube video [6]).

Possible Disruption
The Assad government will do its best to ensure that the elimination of its chemical weapons goes smoothly so that its reputation for straight dealing is enhanced internationally. For the same reason, the Syrian opposition has an interest in disrupting the process, particularly if such disruptions could be blamed on the government. For example, OPCW personnel could be physically attacked and prevented from travelling to the relevant sites.

Another possible source of disruption is the provision in Article IX(8) of the Convention for so-called “challenge” inspections. Under this, any state party to the Convention can request that a facility in the territory of another state party be inspected without delay for possible non-compliance with the Convention.

It’s within the bounds of possibility that one of the states supporting the Syrian opposition could use this provision to disrupt the process of verifying the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.

(Since it is not a party to the Convention, Israel is not in a position to request a “challenge” inspection. The OPCW decision included a paragraph:
“Strongly urging all remaining States not Party to the Convention to ratify or accede to it as a matter of urgency and without preconditions, in the interests of enhancing their own national security as well as contributing to global peace and security.”

According to Sergey Lavrov, the inclusion of this paragraph was proposed by Iran and supported by the US [7]. Only six states in the world — Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea and South Sudan — are not party to the Convention.)

Security Council Resolution 2118
The US — and the UK and France — were insistent that the Security Council must have a hand in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, preferably by passing a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter that could be interpreted by them as authorising military action if in their eyes Syria failed to live up to its disarmament obligations.

The Security Council did pass a resolution (2118) on 27 September 2013 [8] and passed it unanimously. But it wasn’t a Chapter VII resolution authorising the use of force. Russia didn’t allow that. However, to keep them happy, Russia did allow for the possibility of a further resolution with measures under Chapter VII in the event of non-compliance with Resolution 2118, for example, “unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic” (paragraph 21). Of course, Russia would be in a position to veto any proposal from the West that it doesn’t deem to be appropriate.

In this respect, the resolution implemented the framework document agreed by the US and Russia in Geneva on 14 September 2013 [2], which did not promise a Chapter VII resolution prescribing sanctions, even though the US, UK and France kept asserting otherwise.

Endorsing the OPCW Decision
Resolution 2118 is mostly concerned with endorsing the decision of the OPCW, which had been taken a few hours earlier. Those aspects of the resolution were totally unnecessary since the OPCW is the implementing body for the Convention and under Article VIII(36) of the Convention it can refer any non-compliance issue that it cannot resolve itself to the Security Council.

The resolution also condemned “in the strongest possible terms any use of chemical weapons, in particular the attack on 21 August 2013, in violation of international law” (paragraph 3).

However, it does not ascribe responsibility for that attack. Later, it expresses the Council’s “strong conviction that those individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic should be held accountable” (paragraph 15) but without saying how this can be done.

Resolution 2118 also demands that non-state actors in Syria don’t develop or use “nuclear, chemical or biological weapons” (paragraph 19) and that “all Member States shall refrain from providing any form of support” to them if they “attempt” to do so (paragraph 18). Theoretically, therefore, any opposition group that merely tries to develop chemical weapons should not be supported by UN members.

Hague on Resolution 2118
Speaking after the resolution was passed, British Foreign Secretary William Hague tried to make the best of the failure of the US, UK and France to get what they wanted. It is, he said, “a groundbreaking resolution” [9]:
“First, it recognizes that any use of chemical weapons is a threat to international peace and security. This establishes an important international norm that is essential in the wake of the Syrian regime’s appalling actions on 21 August. It upholds the principle of accountability for that proven use of chemical weapons. It imposes legally binding and enforceable obligations on the Syrian regime to comply with the decision adopted earlier this evening by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It makes clear that the Council shall impose measures under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations if there is non-compliance …”

In fact, the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons will be neither helped nor hindered by passing of resolution 2118. That is a matter for the OPCW. Hague says the resolution “imposes legally binding and enforceable obligations on the Syrian regime to comply” with the OPCW decision. That’s a piece of windy rhetoric, implying as it does that the Security Council is going to be the instrument for enforcing the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.

In fact, it’s close to a cast iron certainty that Syria will co-operate fully with the OPCW. But, in the unlikely event of it not doing so, the enforcer will be Russia, which as Syria’s closest ally has leverage over it.

Hague says that the resolution is “groundbreaking” because “it recognizes that any use of chemical weapons is a threat to international peace and security” and therefore “establishes an important international norm”.

The supposed importance of this arises from Article 39 of the UN Charter [10], the first Article in Chapter VII. There it is laid down that the Security Council can only apply economic or military sanctions if it has determined that a “threat to the peace” exists (or a “breach of the peace, or act of aggression” has been committed).

So now, the Security Council has apparently decided that even the most trivial use of chemical weapons constitutes a “threat to international peace and security” deserving of economic or military sanctions.

This is an absurdity. Why should the use chemical weapons be singled out? Why not the use of high explosive, which has been responsible for hundreds of times more deaths in this world, including in Syria over the past two and a half years? Why not biological or nuclear weapons? To the best of my knowledge, the Security Council has never determined that the use of either of these constitutes a “threat to international peace and security”.

Back in 2004 in Resolution 1540 [11], the Security Council affirmed that “proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons … constitutes a threat to international peace and security” (and Resolution 2118 re-affirmed this in respect of chemical weapons).

This means that, if a state without these weapons at the moment acquires a few, this “constitutes a threat to international peace and security”, but the fact that several states already possess large amounts of them is not a threat. That is simply daft.

Geneva II
On 30 June 2012, the Action Group for Syria (the main players being Russia and the US) agreed a framework for negotiations between the government and opposition in Syria and published it in what is now referred to as the Geneva Communiqué [12]. The Communiqué sets the goal of establishing a “transitional governing body” with “full executive powers” including “members of the present government”:
“The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”

In paragraphs 16 and 17 of Resolution 2118, the Security Council endorsed the Geneva Communiqué and called for the convening, as soon as possible, of an international conference on Syria to implement the provisions of the Communiqué.

[1] www.opcw.org/index.php?eID=dam_frontend_push&docID=16747
[2] www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/09/214247.htm
[3] www.opcw.org/special-sections/the-opcw-and-syria/mission-updates/
[4] www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/10/215162.htm
[5] www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10283045/John-Kerry-and-Bashar-al-Assad-
[6] www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hhWUf4fSok
[7] rt.com/news/lavrov-iran-us-weapons-520/
[8] www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/2118%282013%29
[9] www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/PV.7038
[10] www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter7.shtml
[11] www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1540%282004%29
[12] www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Syria/FinalCommuniqueActionGroupforSyria.pdf

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