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Chemical Disarmament in Syria and the Future of the Chemical Weapons Control Regime

Soldiers wearing protection suits. Image: Percy Jones/Wikimedia

What questions has the Syrian conflict raised about the current and future efforts to dismantle and destroy all known stockpiles of chemical weapons? To answer this and a host of other questions, our parent organization, the Center for Security Studies (CSS), hosted an Evening Talk on 23 October 2014 that offered a Swiss perspective on the global chemical weapons control regime and related developments in Syria. The guest speakers were Ambassador Benno Laggner, who is the Head of Security Policy at the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and Stefan Mogl, who currently leads the Chemistry Division at the Spiez Laboratory, which analyzed suspected chemical warfare samples in the aftermath of the August 2013 chemical attacks in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The Chemical Weapons Convention: a Success Story?

Ambassador Laggner began his talk by reminding the audience that the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) outlaws the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons and their precursors. In doing so, the CWC is the first arms-control treaty that has introduced a complete and verifiable ban on an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. Unlike most other disarmament and non-proliferation treaties, the CWC also contains built-in mechanisms to deal with compliance failures, including an agency that oversees their implementation – the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). This Hague-based organization additionally seeks to a) destroy all existing chemical weapons; b) prevent their continued production; c) safeguard member states against chemical threats; and d) promote international cooperation on the peaceful use of chemicals.

The OPCW has scored some notable successes since the CWC came into force in 1997. The organization has overseen, for example, the destruction of over 80% of declared chemical weapons stockpiles. Yet, the OPCW’s record is by no means perfect. It has missed, for example, two self-initiated deadlines for the total elimination of chemical weapons (in 2007 and 2012). In addition, six states still remain outside the full purview of the convention, including Israel and North Korea.

Chemical Disarmament in Syria

Despite the above general caveats, the OPCW can nevertheless look back on its post-Ghouta efforts to dismantle Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons with genuine satisfaction. On 18 August 2014, almost one year after the attacks took place, the Obama administration announced that Syria’s declared chemical arsenal had been successfully destroyed. The end of the joint UN-OPCW mission was also hailed at the time as a “ historic milestone” by Ban Ki-Moon.

The UN Secretary General’s comments can, in part, be attributed to the unique circumstances that the OPCW found itself while operating in Syria. It was the first time, for example, that a country’s chemical weapons were destroyed in the midst of a civil war. In addition, the mission faced a number of difficult challenges that included repeated delays, tight timeframes, and real concerns over the safety of inspectors. There was also disagreement over whether there was enough proof to attribute responsibility for the chemical attacks in Gouta. While the United States and others felt the UN report proved that the Assad regime was responsible, states such as Switzerland were more cautious in their assessments.

Despite these problems, both speakers ultimately stressed that the level of international cooperation in finding, dismantling and eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons was indeed remarkable given the geopolitical context at the time. In particular, Ambassador Laggner noted that the disarmament program provided an important opportunity for US-Russian collaboration, which then continued after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.

Despite the above successes, Laggner also acknowledged that the international community isn’t done – i.e., it still needs to work with the Assad regime to prevent the future use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, recent events and developments in Syria have raised concerns that Assad has not been completely open about his country’s chemical weapons program. Only days after the UN-OPCW mission officially ended, Damascus declared new chemical weapons facilities that it did not previously disclose to inspectors. At the same time, an OPCW fact-finding mission found “compelling” evidence that chlorine gas had been used in attacks on villages in Northern Syria earlier in 2014. According to both Ambassador Laggner and Mr. Mogl, these revelations demonstrate that the international community’s work in Syria is far from over. While Syria’s core arsenal of chemical weapons has been destroyed, Mr. Mogl pointed out that chemical disarmament will only be complete once all production facilities have been destroyed.

Looking to the Future

As the OPCW edges closer to eliminating all declared chemical weapons in the world, its focus will increasingly shift to preventing the (re-)emergence of these weapons. In this context, Mr. Mogl stressed the importance of industry-centered controls, enhancing ethical norms, and pursuing greater education and public outreach efforts, particularly among scientific communities. Ambassador Laggner also highlighted the need to store and share the specialized technical know-how that the OPCW obtained over the course of its work.

As the Evening Talk continued, the speakers also debated how scientific and technological advances could affect the CWC treaty regime in the future. In particular, the growing convergence of chemistry and biology is going to make a sharp distinction between biological and chemical weapons increasingly problematic. So-called incapacitating chemical agents (ICA) best reflect this trend. The agents are actually biochemical weapons that aren’t intended to kill but produce temporary physiological and/or mental impairment. While these weapons fall under the scope of the CWC, there are disagreements over whether they can be used for law enforcement purposes, including domestic riot control.

In conclusion, and despite the potential challenges and pitfalls that lie ahead, it is fair to say that the chemical weapons control regime has proven its worth, with Syria merely highlighting its continued importance to the international community. Nevertheless, it’s now time to start thinking about the future of chemical weapons control and the work of the OPCW in the “post-destruction phase” of its existence. Education and public outreach will have to play an important role in maintaining political will and preventing the re-emergence of state-sponsored chemical weapons programs. However, the growth of the chemical industry and increasing concerns over the use of chemical weapons by terrorists show that future challenges for the chemical weapons control regime will not be purely state-centric.

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