The process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has been going well, shockingly well, in fact. When a United States retaliatory strike was averted by a last-minute push by Russian diplomats to seize on John Kerry’s inadvertent comment about Syria being able to give up its chemical arms, few experts had high hopes for a successful disarmament. The chemical weapons destruction and verification process is onerous and exacting, even for countries undergoing disarmament under conditions of relative peace and security, such as those in Libya when Muammar Gaddafi agreed to relinquish his weapons almost ten years ago. Since Libya has still not completed its process after a decade, and Syria is engaged in a full-scale civil war, the idea of the Assad regime being able to comply fully and transparently even if it so desired was received, well, skeptically.
Yesterday, it was announced that Syria had completed the first step of the disarmament process by successfully destroying its capacity to manufacture chemical weapons and securing its remaining arsenal. In fact, it completed that step a day early “as President Bashar al-Assad has offered unexpectedly robust cooperation, at least so far, with a Russian-United States accord to dismantle his arsenal” according to the New York Times. By all accounts, the Syrian government has been unusually cooperative with the inspectors acting under the auspicies of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, tasked with enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention Syria signed earlier this year. The OPCW also received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
However, distrust will rightly remain until Syria has fully complied with the destruction of its chemical weapons capacity and arsenal alike, and yesterday’s news was not unanimously positive. Instead, Foreign Policy‘s “The Cable” reported that Syria had requested to avert the destruction of some of its chemical weapons manufacturing plants for the ostensible purpose of converting them to civilian use, “fueling concern among some non-proliferation experts that Damascus may be seeking to maintain the industrial capacity to reconstitute its chemical weapons program at some later date.”
The Syrian request—which was contained in a confidential letter from Muallem to Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—has also raised concern among some Western governments that Syria may seek to entangle the inspection agency in lengthy negotiations that could drag out the process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.
Countries are permitted to request such exemptions should they make a “compelling” case, but Syria remains under special suspicion as much of its chemical weapons industry is placed on military facilities that would be awkward converts to peace-time manufacturing. FP quoted nonproliferation expert Amy Smithson as saying much would depend on the intended end result of the conversion “‘If they want to make bubble gum or humanitarian products that are essential for the well-being of Syria’s citizens, that’s one thing,’ she said. ‘But if they ask to make pesticides and fertilizers, normally those plants are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ability to make warfare agents.'”
As the fragile agreement to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons in the aftermath of a horrific use of apparent sarin gas on a Damascus suburb continues, parallel with Syria’s unceasing civil conflict, it remains to be seen if the Assad regime will prove to be genuine in its willingness to disarm, or will use bureaucratic requests and the fog of war to undermine the efforts of OPCW inspectors. Should the fears of nonproliferation experts prove true, we may find ourselves back where we were at the end of this summer.