I’ve written a column for Foreign Policy arguing that the United States should act on Syria’s offer to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
What follows is an initial list of thoughts about the modalities for a United Nations/Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons special commission on the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria.
I’ll probably update this post repeatedly as more people weigh in with ideas and comments.
I think we are looking for two commitments from the Syrians.
First, Syria needs to affirm that the 1925 Geneva Protocol, to which it is a party, prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in all conflicts, including intrastate conflicts.
Second, Syria needs to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention, and accede to the Biological Weapons Convention.
Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria would have to submit a declaration detailing its chemical weapons programs within 30 days, but would have ten years to eliminate any stocks of chemical weapons. Obviously, the Security Council must insist on an expedited process to secure and dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Moreover, the CWC contains a number of provisions that may not be appropriate given the exigency of the current situation, including detailed instructions outlining the details of chemical weapons destruction. It is important for the Security Council to establish a special commission empowered with broader latitude than the OPCW has under the CWC and backed by the threat of enforcement under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. This need not be an indefinite arrangement. After the Security Council determines that Syria’s chemical weapons stocks have been eliminated, Syria can remain in the CWC as a normal state party.
In the first few weeks, the Security Council would pass a resolution, invoking Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, creating a special commission, staffed largely by OPCW personnel, to oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programs. It is important that the Security Council empower this Commission to act in ways that extend beyond the mandate of the OPCW for the initial period covering the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programs. In this period, Syria would submit an interim declaration and agree to a document outlining the rights, privileges and immunities of the special commission.
Within months, UN/OPCW inspectors would be present in Syria, overseeing the process of securing and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. The UN/OPCW would have to make an initial technical judgement about how much of existing stockpiles and equipment can be destroyed on site, including through the use of mobile chemical weapons destruction facilities; how much can be removed from Syria, possibly overland into Jordan (The Jordanians have said they prefer a diplomatic solution. I am voluntelling Amman.); and what must be left in place under tag and seal. Leaving chemical weapons, precursors or production equipment under tag and seal is, I think, the least appealing option.
At the same time, UN/OPCW inspectors would have to attempt to verify the correctness and completeness of the Syrian declaration. Here politics intrudes. There will be pressure, of course, to account for what happened on August 21, as well as the months leading up to it. The CWC is not blind to history. At the same time we are empowering our UN/OPCW team with extraordinary powers, we need to be clear as a policy matter that our priority goal is securing and eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons programs. Issues of historical collaboration and culpability can be deferred for the time being.
I don’t think we can know how long it will take to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, given uncertainties about their size, type and location, to say nothing of the sort of cooperation the UN/OPCW may or may not get from the Syrian government. But I would expect the process to take more than year.
No matter — even a partial elimination of the stockpile is worthwhile. Almost any amount of cooperative disarmament will be more effective than a Desert Fox-like Operation. Even if Assad were to surrender only a portion of the stockpiling before reneging on his commitments, the United States and its allies would be in a better legal and political position to use force, with fewer chemical weapons to target.