Last year’s deal to remove all of Syria’s chemical weapons was widely recognized to be extremely ambitious, with a timeframe that few expected would actually be achievable. On Monday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that beyond many expectations, Syria has turned over all of its declared chemical weapons stockpile for destruction.
“A major landmark in this mission has been reached today,” Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the OPCW, said in Monday’s statement, as the last of Syria’s chemicals identified for removal were loaded onto a Danish ship. “Removing the stockpile of precursor and other chemicals has been a fundamental condition in the programme to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme,” he continued, praising the effort of more than 30 countries and the European Union who either took part in the mission itself or providing the funding necessary.
“In addition to the completion of the removal operation, the Syrian Arab Republic has destroyed all declared production, mixing and filling equipment and munitions, as well as many buildings associated with its declared chemical weapons programme,” the joint OPCW-United Nations mission charged with overseeing the removal process on the ground said. “With the exception of twelve production facilities that are awaiting a decision by the Executive Council of OPCW, all of the declared Syrian chemical weapons programme has been eliminated in an unprecedented timeframe and under uniquely challenging conditions.”
As recently as this Friday, the Obama administration was at best cautiously optimistic about the odds that Syria would meet its final deadline. “Syria has repeatedly missed deadlines, including some its set for itself in removing its declared chemical weapons stocks; that has not changed our approach,” Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman told ThinkProgress when asked about the response should June 30th come and go with Syria still possessing parts of its chemical weapons program. “We have pressed ahead and pressured ahead from the first deadline missed back in Jan when we were at zero percent through succeeding stages, we have kept the pressure on the Syrians. And it’s not just the U.S., it’s the international community.”
“Now we’re at 93 percent and we’re continuing to press,” Countryman continued. “We don’t panic because there’s still another deadline the Syrians are going to miss.” He added that should the remaining seven percent of chemical weapons be removed from Syria in the coming, the U.S. and OPCW would be a good position to finish the destruction process not long after the June 30th deadline. “Until a couple of months ago, I was confident we’re going to beat the deadline,” Countryman said on Friday. “Now we’re not quite going to, but I still feel confident.”
Though it seemed a stretch at the time, given the pronouncements from U.N.-OPCW joint mission coordinator Sigrid Kaag and other U.N. officials that the deadline would surely be missed, his positive view seemed to be well-warranted on Monday with the tone from the administration reflecting the mission’s success. Now, the last remaining chemicals will be shipped to the M/V Cape Ray, the massive ship that the U.S. has retrofitted to be able to destroy Syria’s stockpile at sea. Already more than 100,000 tons of chemicals have been destroyed onboard with the last shipment due to arrive in the coming days.
The Obama administration was also cautious to make sure that their praise for the removal process’ completion didn’t read as praise for the Syrian government. “The world will never forget the loss of the more than 1,400 innocent Syrians senselessly killed with chemical weapons on August 21, 2013,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “The worst of the weapons are gone, but the despicable regime and the crisis it has created remain and require our collective focus.”
As the process was ongoing, critics lashed out at the framework negotiated between Russia and the United States last year as a strategic failure. “This removal of chemical weapons…[is] the very thing that has validated [Assad]; it’s the thing that we did to put him in the strongest position he’s been in since this conflict began,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in March. At the announcement of the deal last September, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said it “requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything than the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama Administration is being led into it by Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin.”
Though those specific critiques may be quieted with this milestone, there are still other concerns that both the administration and other observers have related to Syria’s chemical use. Just last week, the OPCW put out its initial report examining whether chlorine gas has been used against Syrian civilians in recent months. Despite the fact that the fact-finding mission (FFM) was attacked before it could reach one of the main sites it intended to investigate, “it is nonetheless the considered view of the FFM that the available information cannot be dismissed as unconnected, random, or of a nature attributable to purely political motives. This information lends credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks.”
While a country’s possession of chlorine is permitted under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), actually using it against civilians is not. Syria’s government maintains that it was members of the rebel groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad that used the chlorine, but the U.S. has dismissed this argument. “There’s absolutely no evidence that this was done by any of the rebel factions,” Countryman told ThinkProgress. If the OPCW’s initial report stands, that would conceivably mean that Syria is in violation of the agreement, which said that Syria would ratify and abide by the CWC’s provisions, leaving the U.S. forced to consider just how to respond.
And there’s a chance that Syria may also have not declared all of its chemicals to the international community. “Accounts by activists inside Syria that the regime is hiding rockets with chemical warheads in a mountainous area west of the central city of Hama must be taken seriously, and a careful investigation is needed,” the Syrian Opposition Council said in a statement welcoming the OPCW’s announcement. So far, however, no country has offered up evidence that this is the case, though the U.S. remains concerned about the possibility.
Still now these weapons are out of hands of Syria, a fact that might not be said if the administration had launched the air strikes it threatened prior to the compromise between Moscow and Washington. And the grounds for legitimacy that the international community needed to bestow upon Assad to facilitate the removal process is gone. With that complete, the international community will now likely return its attention to figuring out how to remove Assad without further emboldening the more extreme militants operating in Syria — including the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) which is currently in possession of several cities across the border in Iraq.