11 September 2013

Heather Williams

Former Chatham House Expert


& Dr Patricia Lewis, Research Director, International Security


The past 48 hours suggest reason for cautious optimism in the Syrian crisis. Following a seemingly ad-lib comment by US Secretary of State John Kerry that President Assad could avoid a US military strike by giving up the country's chemical weapons, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed a plan for Syria to place its chemical weapons stockpile under international supervision. Syria quickly accepted. 

Russia's proposal provides an opportunity to reduce and eventually eliminate the threat of chemical weapons to Syrian civilians and to Syria's neighbours such as Israel, and reinforces the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons in conflict ‒ a commitment that Syria made decades ago on joining the Geneva Protocol. 

How could the Kerry-Lavrov initiative work in practice? 

The plan is still not fully formed, and will be subject to intense negotiations at the UN in New York. Implementation should occur in four steps: secure, remove, destroy and verify. 

First, Syria must provide a declaration of all of its chemical weapons stocks and locations, and allow an international team to secure those stocks. The international team of experts will be drawn from many countries including from Arab countries, and from the US and Russia who have the most experience in chemical weapons and their destruction having each developed large and sophisticated chemical weapons arsenals that they are now destroying. 

It is unlikely in the chaos of war that all of the chemical weapon locations will be identified and located with 100% accuracy. The key action is to ensure that the vast majority of the stocks, including filled artillery and rocket shells, are located, secured and supervised so that they can never be used again by anyone. 

Next, a secure route must be found to remove the stocks safely and securely under international supervision to a location outside Syria. And third, the weapons must be destroyed under the auspices and watchful eye of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Finally, it is vital that inspectors ensure that no stocks have been kept hidden away. 

The first three steps can be done in a relatively short time frame. But in the longer term, more comprehensive inspections and due legal process will be required. 

As history has shown, none of this will be simple. In 2003 Libya agreed to turn over its chemical stockpile to the US and the UK for disposal and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, as was later made apparent, there were major shortcomings in the Libyan declaration: after the 2011 military intervention and the end of the Gaddafi regime, undisclosed stocks were handed over by the transitional government. 

Inspections also require political support. Following the 1991 UN ceasefire in Iraq, chemical weapons stocks were speedily located and destroyed over a period of few years. UNSCOM's work was so effective that when UN inspectors returned to Iraq in 2002 ‒ after a period of four years hiatus in the inspection regime ‒ there were no real surprises awaiting them in Iraq's deteriorating chemical weapons capability.

International teams of chemical weapons experts are hugely experienced. The OPCW conducts inspections and monitors the destruction of chemical weapons stocks in countries all over the world, including in the US and Russia where there are well-established safe disposal facilities dealing with large quantities of hazardous materials. Comprehensive inspections by the OPCW should be part of the Security Council agreement on Syria and conditions on the ground have to be created to enable their work.

As part of these inspections, the international community must also investigate who authorized the use of chemical weapons in the August 21 attack in Damascus that killed over 1,000 people. The UN and OPCW weapons inspectors do not have this mandate; these are questions for independent legal and human rights investigators to pursue and then present their findings. A thorough investigation may reveal additional useful information such as any foreign assistance in the development of Syria's stockpile. Attributing responsibility will not only strengthen the norm of non-use of WMD but also deter future use of such weapons. 

Ultimately, the Kerry-Lavrov initiative is an encouraging and positive development but as yet there are no game-changers for the Syrian civil war or international agreement on how to respond. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed by conventional means in the civil war, and they will continue to be killed, unless serious international efforts are made on their behalf. 

Securing the weapons under the Kerry-Lavrov initiative in the first place will be the most difficult, and the most important, step. Placing international teams of chemical weapons experts into a warzone will require guarantees that they will be able to do their work unencumbered and without threat to their lives. This presents an opportunity to negotiate a temporary ceasefire to allow the international experts to do their work ‒ a ceasefire that perhaps could be built upon and extended to enable peace talks in Geneva to find much needed breathing space for a long-term settlement.

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Also read: Syria: Chemical Weapons and the Spectre of War

More on Syria.