Briefing on Syria Chemical Weapons
Tomorrow (3 April), Special Coordinator of the Joint Mission of the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Sigrid Kaag will brief Council members, via video-teleconference in consultations, on the sixth monthly report on the implementation of resolution 2118, which required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Given the current suspension of removal activities, Council members are keen to get an assessment of whether the security situation in the port of Latakia proper, and Latakia province more generally, warrants the government’s suspension of removal activities.
Kaag last briefed Council members on 5 March, reporting that despite several missed deadlines Syria and the OPCW had reached agreement on a revised deadline for full removal of chemical weapons material by the end of April. She added that the month of March would be vitally important to the implementation of resolution 2118, which sets 30 June as the deadline for the completion of all removal and destruction activities.
The most recent report of the joint mission (S/2014/220), which covers the period through 22 March, said that 53.6 percent of all chemical weapons material had been removed or destroyed and that 11 consignments of chemicals had left Syria. These shipments represent 34.8 percent of toxic priority-one chemicals and 82.6 percent of less hazardous priority-two chemicals. (The original deadline for the removal of priority-one chemicals was 31 December 2013, and for priority-two chemicals the deadline was 5 February.)
There have been several negative developments since the period covered by the report ended. On 23 March, Syria suspended all removal activities, ostensibly due to the security situation near the Turkish border in Latakia province where the government has been fighting armed opposition groups since early March. The joint mission’s report detailed rocket attacks in Latakia on 9 and 14 March that were some distance from the port area and did not disrupt operations. Also on 23 March, Turkey shot down a Syrian jet after it breached Turkish airspace. Syria called it an act of “blatant aggression”, claiming the jet had in fact been over Syrian territory. Tensions between the two countries remain high.
Russia circulated a draft press statement on 26 March stressing that increased military activity by armed opposition groups in the vicinity of Latakia jeopardised the ability of the government to meet the 30 June completion deadline. At that time, there was no consensus among Council members to issue the statement. The US argued that there was insufficient information to prove that the fighting had affected the security situation in a way that would compromise the government’s ability to comply with its removal obligations. Council members agreed to move Kaag’s briefing forward to 3 April from 9 April in order to get an assessment of the security situation and the actual impact it might have on removal activities. It appears unlikely that there will be an attempt to get agreement on a statement at this time.
Council members will be particularly interested in Kaag’s views as to why fighting in early March did not cause any disruptions to removal activity and whether there is any substantial deterioration near the port of Latakia that could justify the 23 March suspension of removal operations. They will also be interested in hearing Kaag’s assessment of how far behind schedule these most recent delays have placed the operation and their impact on the revised deadline of end of April for all removal activity and the 30 June completion deadline.
Some Council members may be interested in a further briefing from Kaag this month if removal activities are not resumed promptly. These Council members fear that the removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programme may drag out until the end of the year and may press Kaag for frank appraisals regarding realistic timelines. Some of these members are becoming increasingly convinced that Syria’s delayed implementation is a tactic to buy time—in particular until presidential elections are held in May or June.
Despite these concerns, there is no active discussion among Council members about taking further steps in the event of non-compliance. In fact, resolution 2118 stipulates that the determination of non-compliance rests with the Executive Council of the OPCW, which operates by consensus and includes both Russia and the US as members. In effect, this provides a “double lock” against the Council actually imposing measures under Chapter VII on the chemical weapons track.
Besides tomorrow’s briefing, the next key moment for Council members on Syria will be 29 April, when Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos is expected to present the second monthly report on the implementation of resolution 2139 on humanitarian access. Many Council members were frustrated when Amos reported on 28 March that access had not appreciably improved since resolution 2139 was adopted on 22 February and some Council members are speculating that if her April briefing reports similarly limited progress this could prompt a move toward a vote on a draft resolution imposing measures for non-compliance on the humanitarian track.