Briefing on the Syrian Chemical Weapons Track
Tomorrow (5 November), Sigrid Kaag, the Special Coordinator of the joint mission of the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), will brief Council members in consultations on the first monthly report (S/2013/629) on the implementation of resolution 2118, which required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The last time Council members discussed the chemical weapons track was on 10 October when they were briefed on the recommendations for the establishment of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission. The following day, the Council authorised the establishment of the mission to operate in three phases.
Phase I was the conduct of initial verification activities. On 24 October, Syria submitted its formal declaration of its chemical weapons programme and its plans for destroying its stockpile. The OPCW said it would review this plan by 15 November. Council members will be keen to hear any preliminary assessments from Kaag on the reliability of the declaration. (Media reports have indicated that the declaration may not align with intelligence assessments by other member states. Council members were mindful of this possibility during negotiations on resolution 2118, which encourages member states to share such information.)
Phase II was to complete initial inspections of all chemical weapons production and storage facilities by 1 November. On 31 October, the OPCW-UN Joint Mission confirmed that 21 of 23 declared sites had been inspected with activities carried out at 39 of the 41 facilities at those sites to make such facilities inoperable. At press time, the Joint Mission had no further plans for inspections despite the fact that two sites had not been visited due to safety and security concerns. Syria has said that the two unvisited sites were abandoned and that any chemical weapons related material had been moved to the other declared and inspected sites. Council members will likely have questions tomorrow about whether there are any plans to inspect the two remaining sites in order to verify these claims. Council members will also likely be interested to hear from Kaag about how the security determination was made vis-à-vis the two unvisited sites, i.e. whether that determination was made by the Joint Mission, Syria or as a joint assessment.
The issue of possible measures under Chapter VII in the event of non-compliance with resolution 2118 is unlikely to come up tomorrow since Kaag has publicly stated that Syria has thus far cooperated with the OPCW-UN Joint Mission and met all of the deadlines. However, as the mission moves into Phase III, which is to support, monitor and verify the destruction of the chemical weapons programme by 30 June 2014, Council members will want to hear more details on plans for Phase III destruction activities. Council members understand that this phase will be the most challenging due to the security situation in Syria and the ambitious deadline. While Syria’s cooperation is on track, Council members will want clarity on where destruction activities will take place and who will carry out such activities—i.e. Syria or a third country. (The OPCW and the UN are mandated to verify but not to conduct destruction activities.) Generally, destruction activities are carried out in country but resolution 2118 authorises member states to carry out such tasks. There are security risks in either scenario. If destruction activities are carried out in country, then the safety of inspection personnel will be at risk due to the overall security situation in Syria. Destroying chemical weapons stocks in a third country poses its own set of significant security risks during transport as well environmental risks.
Irrespective of where destruction activities occur, related issues which may come up tomorrow are: how will the OPCW-UN Joint Mission provide direct support to Syria in Phase III and how would such activities be funded. There is a certain level of discomfort by Council members that donor countries that are not particularly supportive of the Bashar al-Assad regime might be placed in a position of providing direct financial support to it.
Tomorrow’s briefing is expected to be technical in nature and Council members do not anticipate any substantive discussion of the larger conflict. However, Council members are aware that the backdrop to tomorrow’s briefing is that progress on the chemical weapons track has not altered the course of the civil war in Syria toward a political solution. It remains unclear to many Council members whether the chemical weapons agreement will be able to deliver further positive peace dividends on the political and humanitarian tracks. Council members have noted the stark contrast between Syria’s cooperation on the chemical weapons issue and the lack thereof on the humanitarian track. Today (4 November), Amos briefed Council members on the humanitarian situation reporting that the number of internally displaced inside Syria has risen since June from 4.25 million to 6.5 million.
The next monthly report by the OPCW-UN Joint Mission is due on 27 November. Separately, the final report of a UN team led by Äke Sellström to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in a number incidents in Syria earlier this year is expected in early December.