The Cable

U.N. Warning: Chemical Inspectors Face New Risks in Syria

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expressing grave concern about the safety of international inspectors overseeing the destruction and removal of Syria's chemical weapons program -- just as the project enters its riskiest phase yet.

Ban voiced his concerns in a letter to the U.N. Security Council, which provides fresh details on international plans for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. A copy of the letter, which had not been made public yet, was posted on the web site of a reporter from Arab language broadcaster Al Hurra. Sigrid Kaag, a Dutch* national who heads the U.N.-backed joint mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, will brief the Security Council on Wednesday on Ban's letter.

The joint mission, comprised of 15 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 48 U.N. personnel, is preparing the ground for the latest and most perilous phase of the operation: transporting large quantities of chemical agent through a war zone to the Syrian port of Latakia, where they will be shipped by Norwegian and Danish vessels, and then transferred to American vessels for destruction at sea, according to diplomats.

Ban said the U.N. has received assurances from the warring parties to cooperate in the transport of chemical materials. The Syrian government, which will take the lead in packing and trucking the toxic materials to the port, has continued its "constructive cooperation" with the mission while "representatives of the Syrian opposition based in Istanbul have also indicated their support for the safe transportation of convoys containing chemical material."

"Nevertheless, recent fighting in the Syrian Arab Republic shows that the security situation is volatile, unpredictable and highly dangerous," Ban's letter adds. "The Director General of the OPCW and I remain deeply concerned about the safety and security of the joint mission personnel."

Ban voiced particular concern about the safety of the mission's main headquarters in Damascus, saying the U.N. is currently installing "security enhancements" to reinforce protection. All armored U.N. vehicles, he noted, have been equipped with communications and tracking systems, and staff have received extra security training. "Despite these measures, the facility remains vulnerable to certain risks, and the joint mission is actively exploring viable alternative locations to base its activities, should the security situation require it," he wrote.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov struck a September 14 landmark agreement calling for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program by the middle of 2014.

The pact -- which averted a U.S. strike against Syria in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people -- has largely gone smoothly. The OPCW confirmed on October 31 that Syria completed "the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable."

But the latest phase -- which calls for the destruction of chemical weapons materials outside Syria -- has been dogged by setbacks. Several countries, including Norway and Albania, have refused requests to oversee the destruction of the chemicals on their soil. The United States, which had promised to loan those countries mobile labs capable of converting chemical warfare agents into a far less toxic waste material, has since agreed to destroy the materials itself a sea.

Ban's safety concerns come as the U.N.'s chief humanitarian relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, told the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors on Tuesday that living conditions are sharply deteriorating in Syria. After many delays, the Damascus government has taken modest steps to finally allow relief workers access to some of the country's worst-hit areas.

Syria is facing one of the world's worst humanitarian crises in decades, with more than 9 million civilians in need of assistance, and more than 2.5 million people largely cut off from aid. Nearly 250,000 civilians are living under a state of siege, mostly at the hands of government forces, facing the threat of starvation.

Amos told the 15-nation council that the Syrian government has vowed to lift a few bureaucratic hurdles that have hindered the U.N. relief effort in Syria, pledging to grant 50 new visas to relief workers. On some of the most pressing issues, however, Damascus has given little ground.  

"We have seen some modest progress in terms of administrative procedures," Amos told reporters after the council briefing. However, she added, "on some of the more difficult areas -- protection of civilians, demilitarization of schools and hospitals, access to besieged communities and also cross-line access to hard-reach areas -- we have not seen any progress."

Last week, Syria pledged for the first time during the conflict to allow the U.N. to run aid convoys from Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. "The Syrian government affirmed that it would make every possible effort to facilitate the humanitarian work of the United Nations and international organizations," Syria's U.N. envoy Bashar al Jaafari wrote to Ban last week.

Amos said that Syria had also acceded to a long-standing U.N. request to open humanitarian hubs in three towns, Aleppo, Suwayda, and Qamishli. But she said Syria has refused to permit goods to enter through southern Turkey, a conduit for the rebels' military supplies, but also one of the most concentrated areas of civilian humanitarian need. Amos added, "They see crossing the Turkish border as a red line."

(* An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sigrid Kaag as a Dane. She is Dutch.)

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch


The Cable

U.S. Frackers, Iran's Oil Men Threaten Energy Cartel

Iran's potential rehabilitation comes at an awkward time for OPEC, the elite club of petroleum-producing states that controls the flow of oil to the world market. The cartel's dominance is already threatened by a boom in oil extracted from shale in the United States, and now the potential return of millions of barrels of Iranian oil to the market looms over Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries as they meet in Vienna this week.

While the global power shift brought on by the U.S. shale boom threatens OPEC from the outside, member countries are threatening it from the inside. Iraq, and now Iran, both want to increase production at a time when global supply is already high, raising the specter that OPEC won't be able to marshal its members into line to control prices. The end result could be lower oil prices next year, according to many analysts.

"OPEC's relevance is waning in our view," said Eric Lee, an oil analyst with Citigroup. Lee said the increased supply from non-OPEC countries has created a disruptive shift in the oil markets that reduces the cartel's control of the market.

That includes the United States, where a boom in oil and gas extracted from shale rock has changed the dynamics of the international energy market. The innovations in extraction methods that led to the boom, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, are still under scrutiny for their effects on the environment, while U.S. domestic production continues to grow. The United States produced more crude oil than it imported in November for the first time since 1995. The shift means the United States is less reliant on oil from the Middle East, which could have wide-ranging effects on global politics and markets.  

This week in Vienna, Iran is laying the groundwork for a potential increase in oil production, pushing other countries to make room for Iranian oil to come back to the market in the event that a long-term deal to lift U.S. sanctions can be negotiated.

"Other OPEC countries would have to cut to make room for Iran," said Trevor Houser, partner at Rhodium Group, an economic research firm.

But it's unclear whether other countries will want to reduce production in order to make way for Iran.

"This could be a difficult moment for OPEC, a difficult year," said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Iran is going to be very resentful of anyone saying they should hold back their increase," Clawson said.

That's the way a cartel works. When global oil production is up, the cartel imposes quotas so that an increase in supply doesn't cause the price of oil to drop. The 12 OPEC countries get together and decide to hold back some oil from the market. Each country takes the short-term setback in order to keep the price of oil up, which ultimately benefits all the countries in the club.

Though OPEC is not expected to change its policy this week in Vienna, the prospect of more Iranian oil coming into the market could mean that the cartel might have to move sooner than expected to lower quotas.

"There are two problems: Can you get agreement to reduce the quotas, and can you get countries to abide by the reduced quotas," said Houser. "I think both are going to be pretty challenging."

The struggle will be keeping everybody in line.

"The history of OPEC has been frustrated by sometimes formal agreements that never materialize in practice; many countries accept reducing their own production, but then continue to sell oil under the table," said Leonardo Maugeri, an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School and former executive of Italian oil company Eni. Maugeri said that he expects OPEC to meet again in early 2014 to settle on a new policy. If it can't, oil prices could collapse.

While some analysts have heralded the end of OPEC, others have warned that it could lead to greater volatility.

"Volatile oil prices are especially damaging because people have less ability to make decisions about what kind of car to buy and where to live based on how much oil will take up in their budget," said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy and a former senior advisor in the Obama administration.

OPEC helps dampen volatility. In addition to intervening when oil prices are falling, it also ramps up production when supply is suddenly cut, in an effort to keep prices from spiking.

"Over the last couple years the Gulf states have increased their production when there have been disruptions in, say, Libya," Richard Mallinson, a geopolitical analyst with energy markets consultancy Energy Aspects, said. Mallinson said OPEC has weathered many challenges and will likely survive this one as well.

And while Iran is warning OPEC countries this week that they may have to make room for Iranian oil, some experts think that is still wishful thinking on Iran's part.

"The Iranians have an interest in actually creating this kind of perception, and that is to lure oil companies, the big international companies, to see the potential in coming back to the Iranian market," said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for International Crisis Group. Since Iran doesn't have lobbyists in Washington, Vaez added, Tehran is hoping to convince international oil companies to argue that sanctions should be rolled back.

AFP/Getty Images