Jeffrey LewisSyria CW Elimination Modalities

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.


  1. krepon (History)


    Elimination is a time-consuming process. The ten-year time line is consistent with the obligation of CWC signatories. It may also be hard to get the job done in ten years.

    My sense is that the most urgent requirement is moving CW stocks and munitions to centralized storage sites that have constant surveillance and sensored perimeters.

    Dismantlement and destruction in a war zone is asking for quite a lot.

    I like the notion that Moscow would apply its expertise to these matters and, in doing so, would be even more embarrassed in the event of subsequent CW use by Assad and his henchmen.


    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, I think it’s important to give ourselves the option to truck as much as possible over the border to Jordan.

    • Hippo1 (History)

      I suspect that Syria’s chemical arsenal could be rendered militarily moot in far less than 10 years. The U.S. Army
      Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC). Has recently developed a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS)capable of destroying 5 to 25 tons of agent per day. (See here: UNMOVIC destroyed the bulk of Iraq’s remaining arsenal in well under two years once they got their destruction systems up and running. The most deadly of Iraq’s agents, Sarin was destroyed within a matter of months. While much remains uncertain as to the size, composition, and method of storage of the Syrian arsenal it is not unreasonable to predict that it could be rendered militarily irrelevant in less than a year. The Iraq effort was done without any real sense of urgency and with rather limited resources so it should be technically feasible to destroy Syria’s arsenal much more rapidly. The real problems will be political rather than scientific/technical. Force protection will be an issue, but the most likely threat will be from the Syrian opposition and not the Syrian government. If the bulk of the chemical weapons are in areas under government control and stored in one or two locations than movement should not be too much of a problem. Politically the challenge will be for the Syrians to give up their only real deterrent against intervention without some sort of guarantee that they will not be attacked once they have done so. It is unclear whether we are willing or able to give such a guarantee. I suspect that any UN resolution that even hints at the use of force in regards to this issue will either be vetoed by Russia or kill the deal for the Syrians. Both will be leery of giving us an easy loophole to exploit and allowing us to attack without a UN resolution, the memory of the fate of Gaddafi is to recent for either the Syrians or the Russians to forget.

  2. Marc-Michael Blum (History)

    The key to make a proper assesment is not only the size of the arsenal (and types of agent) but mainly if it is precursors, unitary agent in bulk storage of filled in ammunitions. Presursors can be highly harzardous too but bulk containers definitly easier to deal with than fused ammunitions.

    Assuring security of destruction personnel and inspectors absolutely essential but difficult (as pointed out by MK).

  3. Fred Miller (History)

    The Russian gambit is diplomatic genius. Obama has to accept their offer, but it puts him in a terrible position.

    The most glaring problem with the proposal is that Russia and Syria can demand that the stockpiles and weapons must be removed from Syria on an accelerated schedule. Where to? We can’t find a nation that will accept a few dozen completely innocent Guantanamo internees, even with abundant funding for their room and board. How are we supposed to convince a sovereign state to accept tons of the deadliest stuff on earth? They won’t even permit transshipment through their borders. The world will demand that the United States accept the entire inventory.

    Which would be fine, we’re all in favor of that, but we just don’t want it in our own back yard. I’m familiar with the local and regional politics around the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpiles at Umatilla, Oregon. No argument, no dire necessity, no financial inducement will win over any elected official from the State of Oregon, or of any voter within three counties.

    Sec. Kerry’s extemporaneous comment, and Russia’s response, has given the administration an escape from a commitment that the American public had identified as foolish. But while he’s out of the frying pan, he’s definitely not out of the fire.

    The good news, perhaps, is that the world’s attention is focussed on chemical weapons and their elimination. That may not help President Obama or the people of Syria, but it can bring priceless momentum to the movement for elimination of chemical weapons.

  4. Allen Thomson (History)

    >Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria would have to submit a declaration detailing its chemical weapons programs within 30 days

    I foresee the potential for entertainment when various intelligence agencies compare a Syrian list of sites with their own.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      I should perhaps expand this to say that, even if Syria and Everybody Else enter into an agreement with complete good will and sincere desire to make things work, there are inevitably going to be discrepancies between what Syria says it has and what other parties say they think it has. An inspection protocol for resolving such discrepancies is going to be essential, lest the whole thing fall apart with one side saying (not without reason in precedent) that the Syrians are cheating and Syria saying (not without reason in precedent) that the other side is making things up and/or trying to spy on them under the pretext of CW verification.

    • Cthippo (History)

      Keep in mind also that people are still arguing over the South African nuclear declaration and the Iraqi CW declaration even today. Of course some are going to claim that something is inconsistent or can’t be accounted for, but the US needs to decide that if we get 95% of it that’s good enough.

  5. John Schilling (History)

    What the Syrians need to do is issue a series of joint press releases with the Russians saying, “We are really sincerely working on this, but we’re in the middle of a civil war, things take longer, so give us some more time”.

    If world attention remains focused on the issue for an uncharacteristically long time, the press releases will have to escalate to, “We have found and will implement a technical solution, but since nobody in Syria can trust or guarantee the safety of Americans or Europeans, Russia has generously volunteered to handle the whole thing”, followed by “Syria and Russia now jointly certify that the entire Syrian chemical arsenal has been destroyed on-site and/or relocated to secure Russian facilities”.

    These press releases will fully satisfy Assad and Putin’s requirements, e.g. convincing a handful of ambivalent US congressmen to hold off on authorizing missile strikes. Why would they bother with the cumbersome logistics of an actual CW elimination program, when the press releases will do the job? Or, what do those of us who would demand more, have to offer in exchange for seeing our requirements met?

    It would be nice if we could contemplate the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpile as anything other than an academic exercise. Between British parliamentary refusal, American congressional ambivalence, and John Kerry’s clumsy gaffes, that seems a remote hope at best.

  6. S.Batsanov (History)

    Jeffrey, good that you assumed the task of trailblazing on the implementation of this trailblazing initiative.
    Some formalities first:
    1. Syria can’t sign or ratify CWC – it can only accede; maybe, that’s for the better – can be done quicker.
    2. 10 years destruction period starts with the CWC entry into force and applies to those states, which joined before the expiration of this period. For those joining later it’s the OPCW’s Executive Council that negotiates on and then approves the order and duration of destruction, which may well be different from what applies to early comers, like US and Russia. This is good and allows for imaginative solutions, including the need to render CW unusable first and to spend enough time on the final irreversible destruction.
    3. As soon as Syria officially says to the OPCW it is joining, it can request assistance in preparation of initial declarations, so the work can start even before Syria becomes a party (30 days after depositing the instrument of accession with UNSG; initial declarations are due 30 days after entry into force; in total 60 days. This will allow OPCW to conduct a serious assistance campaign, aimed at insuring completeness of declarations.
    Now on substance.
    1.Having Syria join CWC is crucial. That would save the UNSC from many useless (and bloody) battles and establish the legal regime, which may allow for many things, including more stringent inspections. It would be serious mistake to try to copy UNSCOM or UNCOMIZE OPCW.Please, no special commission on Syria. OPCW should be in command and it can report to UNSC if Syria is really not behaving.
    2. Establish well priorities. I hope it will be declaration, inventarization and securing stocks. In the meantime UN/OPCW team can continue wiith investigations of alleged use, but OPCW itself should concentrate on stocks.
    3. Doing all this under Chapter VII res is a non-starter for Russia. Yes, Russia will be embarrased if Assad uses CW in future (if he really uses); the risk has been considered worth taking.
    4. Stockpiles should be declared protected zones, no fighting can be allowed there. Protection of stockpiles requires careful consideration.
    5. Syria will need assistance in destruction. No repetion of UNSCOM achievements in Iraq can be allowed (CWC specifically prohibits certain methods of destruction). Here we may have a good field for US-RU cooperation, as both countries now have unique and fresh experience.
    (others welcome to joine)
    6. OPCW should be strengthened – at least financially (if the idea starts flying). In general this may become the most important test so far, and the OPCW has a chance of raising the level of its relevance for real international security issues.
    7. We have a unique window of opportunity to find a diplomatic-political-legal solution to the Syrian CW problem. I would expect that in coming days there may be attempts to close the window. Would be a pity if it’s closed

    • Jeffrey (History)

      This is awfully helpful. Many thanks.

    • S.Batsanov (History)

      Thanks, Jeffrey.
      One more point came to mind.
      There is a very interesting provision in the CWC, which allows the OPCW Executive Council to approve bilateral or multilateral agreements on destruction, concluded separately, but consistent with CWC. That was done in the expectation that there would be bilateral US-RU agreement, signed at the 1990 Summit in Washington; the agreement never entered into force, so this CWC provision was never activated – so far. With some degree of legal flexibility it might be used to accomodate a special agreement between Syria and, say, Russia and maybe some other countries (US may have difficulty with becoming a party, but who knows?) this would also allow interested parties to be much more involved in the verification process, with the OPCW playing a supplementary, but still important role. Anyway, for this trick to work, Syria must be a party to CWC.

  7. Jean Pascal Zanders (History)

    Jeffrey, thanks for the positive thinking and putting the CWC centre stage. I would also endorse Sergey Batsanov’s comments.

    My reaction is mostly to your reply to Michael’s initial comment, as I have picked up several references to taking Syria’s CW outside the country (mostly a US debate).

    I think it would be good if legal experts could investigate whether Syria’s CW can be moved outside its borders at all. All of Syria’s neighbours (except Israel) are party to the CWC, and can therefore not have CW on their territory. Article I states that a party can never under any circumstance ” develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone”.

    Furthermore, the same article makes it the responsibility of the possessing state to destroy its CW. This is a basic principle.

    However, even if transport were feasible through interpretation or the adoption of an ad hoc exception, what would be the impact of national law on the idea. There are not that many countries with CW destruction facilities, even assuming that they would be willing to take the Syrian CW in. The USA and Russia both have federal and state/regional laws that ban the transport of CW across state/region borders. Here I am assuming maritime transport (what about territorial waters, e.g. in the Bosporus or the Straits of Gibraltar?). If the munitions were to be airlifted, I suppose that other international regulations, incl. about hazardous transports, kick in. And then, I am not even speculating aboout the impact of CWC Art. I on national airspace.

    While in Jordan, the munitions would be outside a warzone, but would they be safe from insurgent efforts to get them?

    Perhaps an ideal solution might be to get them to the Russian naval base at Tartus, but I have no idea of local geography to determine whether this is feasible at all. But the CW would be in a securitised area.

  8. John (History)

    Considering the legal issues with transporting and storing CW within third party’s land, I think about offshore storage and destruction as an option. It is far from ideal but worth considering. The mobile storage/destruction facility can be installed on a ship under Syrian flag and the ship can be placed somewhere in Mediterranean Sea within short distance of U.S fleet area of operation or any other naval protection. This can address removing the CW from the war zone to an isolated area, controlling the access to storage and monitoring the process. U.S exercised this process to some extent:
    As far as I can remember they destroyed several batches of their CW in 50s by sinking old ships.

  9. jeannick (History)

    The ship idea is good , wholesale transport out of Syria is still the most promising option
    cheap , fast and controllable

    another option faster and certainly dirtier is to release the stuff slowly over the desert on a windy day
    considering the hazards around the risk would be peanut
    compared to the ongoing mayhem
    (I’m just adding this to show the full range of option)

    a side issue is that the Assad Government will act as a legitimate interlocutor able to sign international treaties
    calling it a “regime ” is quite stupid , its signature has to be recognized as valid

    This is going to be in a war zone with plenty of actors willing to sabotage the whole process

    -Some fractious Syrian army commanders , thinking Assad is a wimp willing to surrender an important asset and setting up a Libyan scenario .
    after all one of the main concern stopping the full destruction of the Assad government is the prospect of
    a sudden collapse of the Syrian Army and the stockpile falling in someone hands

    – any hard nosed rebels seeing the receding of air strike s as a disaster for their prospects .

    – any third party with some axe to grind or some ultimate motive , the extreme French proposal spring to mind , it was a clear attempt to stall the process

    -any rebel band with variable morality , which can get its hands on some mustard gas, can make a bundle of cash
    even selling it back to the Syrian Authorities with U.S. money .

  10. Allen Thomson (History)

    Pity the US closed the Johnston Island demilitarization facility so thoroughly.

  11. Jens Iverson (History)

    Perhaps the bulk of them could be loaded onto Russian ships and eventually brought to Gorny or Kambarka, where the chemical weapons destruction facilities have completed their work?