What's In Blue

Posted Thu 10 Oct 2013

Syria: Briefing on Joint OPCW and UN Mission

This afternoon (10 October), Council members will convene for a briefing in consultations from the Secretary-General’s Chef de Cabinet, Susana Malcorra, on the Secretary-General’s 7 October letter to the Security Council outlining recommendations on the role of the UN in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons programme (S/2013/591), as requested by the Council in resolution 2118.

In his letter the Secretary-General proposes the establishment of a Joint Mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons programme. The letter provides details of the responsibilities of the OPCW and the UN, which were developed following consultations with OPCW Director-General, Ahmet Üzümc. The letter also explains how the Joint Mission will be funded and elaborates on the three different phases of operation.

This will be the first opportunity for Council members to discuss the content of the letter, which they received on Monday (7 October). While Council members are expected to be generally supportive of the recommendations, there are likely to be questions about the budget of the Joint Mission and there may be interest in further information on the funding. There may also be questions about the role of the proposed civilian Special Coordinator and whether there are any candidates in mind.

The main issue for today’s consultations is what role the Council should play in establishing such a mission. While the Secretary-General does not openly request Council endorsement or suggest that a decision from the Council is needed, Council members are of the view that some sort of action is required. What is still unclear is whether members will choose to establish such a mission through an exchange of letters or a resolution. This joint OPCW-UN mission is unlike any previously set up by the UN although the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Angela Kane, in briefing member states, earlier this week, characterised it as being most like a special political mission.

Council members are aware that this Joint OPCW-UN Mission needs to be set up as quickly as possible, and with this in mind some Council members are in favour of a simple exchange of letters. Others, however, believe that a resolution might be the better option. It is likely that a first exchange on this issue will take place this afternoon. Looking at recent examples, special political missions have been set up through a mix of exchange of letters and the adoption of a resolution. In 2010 the UN Office for Central Africa was set up through an exchange of letters, while the UN Support Mission in Libya was established through resolution 2009 in 2011. The most recent special political mission to be set up was the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, set up through resolution 2102 on 2 May 2013.

Council members who are keen not to lose focus of the political track may want to discuss Geneva II and the prospects of it taking place in November as well as possible participants.

The Proposed Joint Mission

Given the precarious operating environment, the Secretary-General proposes the Joint Mission establish a “light footprint” in Syria, deploying only those personnel whose in-country presence is necessary to perform the mandated tasks. A Damascus office will serve as the operations base, while a staging and support base will be established in Cyprus. (It seems Cyprus has expressed willingness to host such a facility subject to a Council decision on the establishment of the Joint Mission.)

Roles and Responsibilities

Within the Joint Mission, each entity will operate in areas of their particular competencies. According to the proposal, the OPCW will serve as the lead technical agency, while the UN will play a strategic coordination role and serve as an operational enabler for the Joint Mission. Thus, the UN will be tasked with providing support to overall coordination of security arrangements, logistics, information assessments, communications, outreach and administration. In these areas, the UN will engage with international and regional actors, as well as the Security Council in order to implement resolution 2118 and related Council decisions. The UN will also work to facilitate support and assistance from member states.

The OPCW on the other hand will engage with Syria for the purposes of verifying chemical weapons and facilities related to their storage and production, and chemical weapons research and development. The OPCW will also conduct inspections and other activities related to the verification of the destruction of the chemical weapons programme.

The proposed Joint Mission will be headed by a civilian Special Coordinator at the level of Under-Secretary-General, whom the Secretary-General will appoint in consultation with the OPCW Director-General.

The mission will build upon the advance team of 19 OPCW personnel and 16 UN personnel who began activities in Damascus on 1 October, and expand to a staff of approximately 100 personnel from both organisations. The number of personnel within the Joint Mission, or providing direct support to it, will shift constantly depending on operational needs.


Regarding funding for the Joint Mission, the Secretary-General’s proposal outlines a scenario where each organisation will fund its own personnel, responsibilities and tasks. The contributions of the UN will primarily be funded from the regular budget, though the Secretary-General expressed his intention to establish a trust fund to provide for activities that complement the efforts of the mission as needs emerge.


The Joint Mission will operate in three phases.

  • Phase I: During this phase the Joint Mission will establish an initial presence in Damascus and develop preliminary operating capabilities. The OPCW will conduct initial verification activities through dialogue with the government and will conduct planning for site visits, verification activities, and future phases. Some of these tasks have already been initiated by the advance team.
  • Phase II: During this phase, which would last through 1 November, the OPCW would complete its initial inspections of all Syrian chemical weapons production and storage facilities, and oversee the destruction by the government of all chemical weapons production equipment. The Joint Mission will be enhancing its operational capabilities by opening its Cyprus base, increasing its medical response capacity and strengthening its security posture. During this phase, the Joint Mission will rely on the government of Syria to ensure the safety and security of its personnel.
  • Phase III: From 1 November 2013 to 30 June 2014, the Joint Mission will be expected to support, monitor and verify the destruction of the chemical weapons programme, which involves multiple sites spread over a country engulfed in conflict. This will require movement, by OPCW and UN civilian personnel, across battle lines and the Secretary-General warns that there will be “exceedingly complex security challenges related to ensuring a safe operating environment at destruction sites”. There will also be complicated technical questions related to the destruction. The Secretary-General acknowledges that the timelines associated with the destruction phase would be ambitious even in peace time. He notes that given the complexity of this phase, additional analysis and consultation are required, involving OPCW, the UN and member states that may be in a position to contribute to developing a viable operational concept and conduct necessary planning. As with the previous phase, destruction of chemical weapons is the responsibility of the government, and neither the OPCW nor UN is mandated to conduct destruction activities.