Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has
asked international inspectors to spare a dozen of its chemical weapons factories
from the wrecking ball, The Cable has
learned. The Syrians say they want to convert the plants into civilian chemical
facilities. But the move is fueling concern among some non-proliferation
experts that Damascus may be seeking to maintain the industrial capacity to
reconstitute its chemical weapons program at some later date.
The Syrian request -- which was contained in a confidential
letter from Muallem to Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- has also raised
concern among some Western governments that Syria may seek to entangle the inspection
agency in lengthy negotiations that could drag out the process of destroying
Syria's chemical weapons.
The OPCW -- which, along with the United Nations, is
overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program -- has
frequently allowed states that volunteer to eliminate their nerve agent plants
to convert the facilities into a production for vaccines, medicines, and other
life-saving products. But states must first make a "compelling" case to justify
the preservation of such a facility. The Syrian letter does not detail how the
civilian chemical plants would be used, according to an official that has been
briefed on its contents. Any exception to the Syrian chemical destruction
program would have to be ratified by the 41-nation OPCW executive council,
which counts the United States as a member. Such decisions are typically made by
Amy Smithson, a non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, noted that the OPCW’s executive council will have to seriously weigh what the Syrians intend to produce. "If they want to make bubble gum or humanitarian products that are essential for the well-being of Syria's citizens, that's one thing," she said. "But if they ask to make pesticides and fertilizers, normally those plants are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ability to make warfare agents."
The request comes as the OPCW announced that it had visited 21 of Syria's declared chemical weapons sites and found that Damascus had
completed the destruction of all of its chemical weapons filling and mixing
equipment a day ahead of schedule. "The government of the Syrian Arab Republic
has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its
declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants,
rendering them inoperable," the OPCW said in a statement today. "The Joint [UN/OPCW]
Mission is now satisfied that it has verified -- and seen destroyed -- all of
Syria's declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment."
The OPCW's announcement echoed an upbeat assessment by U.N.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who informed the U.N. Security Council in an
October 28 letter that "the government of the Syrian Arab Republic has extended
consistent, constructive cooperation."
(On the other hand, Syria's assistance on the chemical
weapons front contrasted with the bureaucratic hurdles
that Damascus has placed on international relief efforts -- restricting the
number of aid organizations that work in Syria and delaying the issuance of visas
to U.N. aid officials.)
The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not respond to a
request for comment. But Thomas Countryman, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of
State for International Security and Non-Proliferation, expressed optimism
about the trajectory of chemical weapons removal. "I am increasingly
confident that we will be able to complete this task, the elimination of
Syria's CW program, within the target date of June 30th of next year."
Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
Countryman said that the United States and Russia had discussed in Geneva the need for
the "the removal of dangerous pre-cursor chemicals from Syria, the bulk of
which are not weaponized not inside shells," saying it "would be essential to
completing this task on time. The destruction plan submitted by the Syrian
government to the OPCW embraces exactly that concept and we are confident that
we will have a host country that can work with us to affect the destruction
outside of Syria of these precursor chemicals."
However, Countryman cautioned that "while the record so far
is acceptable we do not assume or take for granted that the Syrian government
will continue full compliance with its obligations."
this process with our eyes wide open," he added. "We are about to enter what
could be the most complicated phase in terms of logistics and security. That is
the removal of chemical precursors in large quantities from several sites
within Syria to the coast for removal on a ship to another country."
Countryman's optimism contrasts with several
non-proliferation experts, who cautioned that the hardest parts of the
destruction effort were still to come and that it was unlikely Assad's
stockpiles could be fully eliminated by next summer.
"Having Syria meet its obligation to destroy its
filling and production equipment and empty munitions was always the easy part,"
said a senior Defense Department chemical weapons specialist. "It was
never a realistic deadline based on engineering estimates, but rather that
schedule was a diplomatic and idealistic attempt to quickly stop Syria from
using a particular weapon system in its current conflict."
Faiza Patel, formerly a senior official with the OPCW,
said the effort would likely be slowed by a pair of challenges. Assad's
stockpile contains roughly 290 metric tons of chemical agents, and Patel said
that a large quantity of the deadly agents had probably already been loaded into
warheads, artillery shells and missiles. That means the chemical agents would
need to be separated from the munitions and neutralized, a time-consuming and
dangerous process, before the warheads and artillery shells were also
Patel said the second potential hurdle came from the
unanswered question of where the chemical weapons agents would actually be
destroyed. Eliminating the stockpiles while they were still in Syria would require
building dozens of destruction facilities or fielding large numbers of mobile
units, a process that could easily take a year or more. Patel said the weapons
could be eliminated far more quickly if the Syrian weapons were transported to
countries like Russia or the United States that already have large-scale facilities. It
would be difficult to move the weapons to a centralized collection point while
the fighting was raging, however, and shipping the weapons overseas
themselves poses huge safety and security risks.
"If they have to be
destroyed inside Syria, there's zero chance the deadline will be met," Patel
said. "If they find some way of legally transferring them out of Syria
and getting them to established destruction facilities, then they'd have a
In his letter to Üzümcü, Muallem said that the Syrian
government would bear full responsibility for transporting the chemical
materials from weapons sites throughout the country to the port of Latakia. He
asked that the chemical weapons agency supply the Syrians with armored
vehicles, communications gear, and other equipment to enable them to transport
One U.N.-based diplomat said that Syria is permitted by OPCW
rules to request converting the facilities to civilian uses but that Damascus
is likely to confront opposition. “It’s difficult to see how we would agree,”
the diplomat said, noting that many of the plants are on military compounds
ill-suited for commercial activities. The diplomat also said that Syria’s
request for equipment for transporting chemical weapons was “extensive” and
that some of the items, including radios and armored vehicles, would be hard to
approve because they have “dual use” military applications.
The Hague-based organization has previously allowed countries
to convert chemical weapons production facilities as a way of providing
incentives for countries to cooperate. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which
entered into force in 1997, included a provision that allowed chemical weapons
powers that signed the treaty before 2003 to convert their chemical warfare
plants to peaceful purposes. Since its establishment, the agency has allowed
the conversion of more than 70 facilities in more than a dozen countries. A
year later, the OPCW's Executive Board approved
a request by Libya, which joined the convention in 2004, to convert a chemical
weapons plant into a facility for producing vaccines and medicines for HIV/AIDS,
malaria, and tuberculosis. "There is apparently a production facility here or
there that they would rather not destroy, but would like to convert to peaceful
uses," said an official involved in the effort to destroy Syria's
unconventional weapons. "That is possible. But we would verify and continue to
inspect the facilities for fifteen years."
Charles Duelfer, a former senior U.N. weapons inspector and
head of the CIA team that confirmed the absence of weapons of mass destruction
in Iraq, said that U.N. inspectors required Iraq to destroy most of its
chemical weapons plants.
"We went through
the facility piece by piece; we might allow them to take some piece of
equipment an reintegrate into a civilian industrial chemical plant," he said.
If they encountered high grade equipment, that could be applied in a military
or civilian program, they would "tend to destroy it."
"I don't know
enough to say that OPCW are being a bunch of wusses," Duelfer added. "But I
would say that coming out of post-war investigation of Iraq, it was our judgment,
the judgment of the Iraq Survey Group, that Iraq's civilian chemical industry was
being rebuilt with the embedded option of producing chemical weapons at some
point in the future."
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