Briefing on Syria Chemical Weapons: Final Deadline Will Be Missed
Tomorrow (4 June), Sigrid Kaag, the Special Coordinator of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Mission, will brief Council members in consultations. She will present the eighth monthly report on the implementation of resolution 2118, which required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. This will be a sensitive briefing given that the Secretary-General has reported that the 30 June final deadline for the complete removal and destruction of the chemical weapons arsenal will not be met.
Kaag last briefed Council members on 8 May, reporting that Syria had missed the extended deadline of 27 April for the complete removal of its declared chemical weapons materiel, with 7.2 percent—including precursors to producing sarin—held at one site. On 28 April, the day after the extended deadline passed, Syria informed the Joint Mission that the site could not be reached because armed opposition groups were in control of the surrounding area. Council members are likely to be interested in Kaag’s assessment of whether the security situation warrants further delay. Many Council members are also likely to stress that, while the overwhelming majority of the declared arsenal has been removed for destruction, the remainder includes highly toxic chemicals that have the potential to cause immense human suffering.
Council members are also keen to know whether Syria has indicated a specific timeframe during which the last tranche of chemicals will be shipped out of the country. There were no removal activities in May, though the remaining chemicals were prepackaged for transport in the event that Syria assesses that the security situation allows for removal. Syria allowed relevant staff and material to be flown in for the prepackaging activities to take place. However, the government has insisted that the final removal can only be conducted by ground transport. It seems that the implication is that if the Joint Mission was not able to display flexibility regarding the 30 June deadline, then a military operation could be conducted to adequately secure the roads to allow for safe extraction.
Council members will also want an update from Kaag on the status of the OPCW’s review of the destruction plans for the 12 facilities that were to be destroyed by 15 March. It seems Syria is of the opinion that merely rendering the facilities inoperable would meet destruction criteria, a view not shared by most Council members. Similarly, Council members may be looking for further updates from Kaag on the OPCW’s ongoing work to clarify any potential gaps in Syria’s chemical weapons declaration.
Council members also expect that there will be continuing discussion in tomorrow’s consultations regarding allegations that Syrian forces bombarded the opposition-held town of Kafr Zeita with explosive barrels loaded with chemical and toxic gases on 11 April. Many Council members are expected to stress that the goal of resolution 2118 was to prevent any chemical weapons attacks from happening again. In that regard, it is likely these Council members will seek to have a reporting line back to the Security Council on the results of the OPCW fact-finding mission into the allegations.
Finally, Council members will also want more information from Kaag on two security incidents in May that affected UN and OPCW personnel. On 6 May, shelling hit an area in Damascus near Joint Mission headquarters, injuring two staff. On 27 May, an OPCW team in Syria investigating allegations of chlorine bombs came under attack, with one staff sustaining minor injuries.
The latest report (S/2014/368) confirms the long-held belief of several Council members that the 30 June completion deadline will be missed. Some members have raised questions over whether Syria may be holding on to the final tranche of chemicals as a bargaining chip until the issue regarding its chemical weapons production facilities is resolved and also perhaps until the 3 June elections are complete. Either way, these members believe that the OPCW-UN Joint Mission will need to continue to play a role past the deadline until there is total removal and destruction, clarification of whether Syria has made a full declaration of its chemical weapon arsenal and destruction of the 12 facilities that were to be destroyed by 15 March.
Russia has expressed a strong preference to move the issue out of the Council after 30 June, allowing the OPCW to deal with any remaining issues on a purely technical level. However, while resolution 2118 has a clear deadline of 30 June for removal and destruction activities, it does not indicate that the Joint Mission’s mandate also concludes on 30 June. That mandate was established by an exchange of letters in October 2013 and does not have any specific end date (S/2013/591 and S/2013/603).
Despite expectations that Kaag will convey that the 30 June deadline will be missed, there is no active discussion among Council members about taking further steps for non-compliance with resolution 2118. 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 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 on the humanitarian track. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos will brief the Council on the implementation of resolution 2139 on 26 June. In the interim, it is likely that a draft resolution on cross-border and cross-line access may be tabled. It seems that the draft will be tightly focused on such access in order to avoid potentially undermining the gains of resolution 2139 in what many expect to be difficult negotiations. Despite China and Russia vetoing a resolution referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court on 22 May, humanitarian penholders Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg are hoping for an agreed text on humanitarian access. The penholders are currently in preliminary discussions with the P5 on the text with expectations that the draft may go to the broader Council membership quite soon.