What’s Next Now That Syria Missed Another Chemical Weapons Deadline?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Petros Karadjias

A crew member of the Danish warship Esbern Snare wears a protective mask which shows the reflection of the Danish cargo ship Ark Futura, during emergency drills ahead of transporting Syria's chemical weapons

The Syrian government on Wednesday missed another deadline in the international community’s plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal from the country, leaving the question open as to what the next steps are in the process to ensure the end of attacks such as the one seen in August.

As part of the deal to rid Syria of its chemical stockpile reached last fall, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was given the leeway to draft an ambitious timetable for the removal process, a timetable to which Syria agreed. According to the plan developed, the Syrian government was due to have turned over 1,000 metric tons of Category 1 chemical weapons to the Joint OPCW/United Nations Mission currently on the ground in Syria for destruction by Dec. 31, 2013. Today was scheduled to be the date that the 290 metric tons of Category 2 chemical weapons had also left Syria’s shores for processing and destruction.

Both of those interim deadlines have come and gone, putting into doubt the odds that the process will be completed to the satisfaction of the international community. The international fleet deployed to assist the destruction process has only had to escort two shipments of chemicals to Italy for destruction. The United States’s M/V Cape Ray, which was deployed last week to destroy the weapons, may not find much work once it arrives in the Mediterranean. The Obama administration lashed out at Syria for its delays last week, noting that only 4 percent of the deadliest weapons in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s arsenals had been shipped out of the port city, Lattakia.

“While the two shipments (of chemicals) this month represent a start, the need for the process to pick up pace is obvious,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said last week. “Ways and means must be found to establish continuity and predictability of shipments to assure States Parties that the programme, while delayed, is not deferred.” According the accompanying press statement, Üzümcü “and the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke recently and agreed that the removal process must be accelerated.”

Should that process not be sped up, it would fall to Ban and Üzümcü to determine whether to officially declare Syria in non-compliance with the OPCW’s timetable. While Syria technically has until June 30 to complete the full process of destruction, the organisation declared in its original decision on Syria last fall that Syria would “complete the elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014, subject to the detailed requirements, including intermediate destruction milestones.” As several of those intermediate milestones have been missed, the two leaders could theoretically call out the Assad government for failure to abide by their commitments today. When reached for a statement about the possibility about such a declaration, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan pointed to last week’s press statement. “We have nothing further to add to that statement at this time,” he said.

Should non-compliance actually be the case, the matter will go back to New York to sit before the U.N. Security Council once more. It was in the Council that the decision to pass a resolution binding Syria to the deal struck between the U.S. and Russia was hammered out. Under the terms of the resolution, the Security Council is bound to “in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.” These measures can range from levying economic embargo, to travel and other sanctions levied on individuals, to the use of force from member-states to enforce the Council’s will.

Following the resolution’s passage, even Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a primary opponent of the invocation of Chapter VII in the resolution, acknowledged that “violations of [the resolution’s] requirements as well as the use of chemical weapons by any party will be carefully investigated by the Security Council, which will stand ready to take action under Chapter VII of the Charter.” That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it will be easy to punish Assad. “The actions taken will be commensurate with any violations, which will have to be 100 per cent proved,” Lavrov added, causing some concerns about how easily Russia will accede to a declaration of non-compliance.

The difficulty in convincing Russia that Syria has abrogated its promises under the terms of the deal were evident on Tuesday when Moscow said that the Syrian government had pledged a “large shipment” of chemicals in the near future. “Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that they have planned the removal of a large shipment of chemical weapons in February,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told RIA Novosti. “They are ready to complete this process by 1 March.”

For its part, the United States hasn’t completely abandoned the idea of using military force to punish Assad, an option shelved when Moscow and Washington agreed to the current arrangement. When asked earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said that President Obama “left that issue on the table, as he did leave it on the table for the full compliance of Syria with that agreement.”

“So the President has fully left that option on the table with respect to the compliance issue of the chemical weapons, and depending on what happens in the future, the President never takes any option off the table,” Kerry warned.

The Security Council is due to receive a briefing from the OPCW on Thursday about the removal process. What members hear at the closed-door meeting will likely determine the amount and type of pressure placed on Assad’s government as the less than five months between now and the final deadline tick away. In the meantime, what was formerly a bright spot among the chaos of Syria now risks melding in with the other distressing news coming from the country, now in the fourth-year of the conflict.