The first monthly report from the chemical weapons watchdog overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons confirms that the the Assad regime is thus far proving cooperative, meeting the strict timetable the international community laid out in September.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) catapulted to the public view in the past weeks, as the world scrambled for a diplomatic response to the massive chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus in August. When the United States and Russia came to an accord that would forgo an American bombing campaign in favor of the systematic disarmament of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile of chemical arms, it was determined that the OPCW would be the main vehicle for accomplishing that goal. Just weeks later, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts over the years to rid the world of chemical arms.
Now the OPCW and the United Nations are on the ground in Syria, working to do just that, and progress is proceeding apace though not without a few snags. Syria on Thursday submitted to the OPCW its general plan of destruction for its weapons program, ahead of the deadline of Oct. 27 that had been imposed. “To date, the Government of Syria has fully cooperated in supporting the work of the advance team and the OPCW-UN Joint Mission,” OPCW-U.N. Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag said in a statement from Syria last week.
The joint mission, according to the report from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu to be delivered to the U.N. Security Council later today, has managed to be propped up extremely quickly by international operation standards. As of the Secretary-General’s letter to the Council, 26 OPCW experts were on the ground in Syria, along with 50 United Nations personnel, including national staff. Through donations from member states, the U.N. has deployed 22 armored vehicles, a diesel fuel tanker, and even an armored ambulance in support of the inspectors. And a trust fund to support the efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons currently has a balance of about $5.5 million, with another $3.7 million in pledged donations, including contributions from the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and Switzerland.
One of the lesser deadlines in the inspection timeline, however, has been missed, due to security concerns. Inspectors had meant to visit all 23 of the chemical weapons sites that Syria had declared by Oct. 27, but were unable to examine the two sites due to ongoing fighting. The mission is constantly reviewing the security situation “with the intention of visiting them as soon as conditions permit,” according to Ban, though it is possible that this may not occur before the Nov. 1 deadline for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons production capability.
Despite that setback, the speed at which the destruction has proceeded is remarkable. “The functional destruction of the declared capacity of the Syrian Arab Republic to produce chemical weapons is expected to be completed as planned by 1 November 2013, a mere 34 days after the adoption of [U.N. Security Council] resolution 2118,” Ban writes in his letter to the Council. The report on the whole showcases just how quickly the efforts have moved forward, given the the incredible size and scope of the program that is currently challenging inspectors and experts, including 1,000 metric tons of Category 1 chemical weapons, 290 metric tons of Category 2 chemical weapons, and about 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions.
The current progress doesn’t negate the fact, however, that Syria is currently in the middle of a civil war. While the OPCW works, Damascus still appears to be making the case — embraced by Russia and rejected by the United States and its allies — that members of the Syrian rebellion also possess chemical weapons on a scale to possibly be responsible for the chemical weapons attacks reported to date. “In addition, the Syrian authorities have reported finding two cylinders not belonging to them, which are believed to contain chemical weapons,” the OPCW report notes.
The U.N. part of the report also suggests that Syria has requested of the United Nations items related to transportation, communications, and power generation to help provide security for the inspection teams, which the United Nations worries may be have practical military applications. “The United Nations will not procure or otherwise provide such dual-use material to the Government,” Ban writes. “Any assistance provided by the United Nations will be subject to strict conditions in order to ensure that it used solely for the intended purposes.”