Syria’s Chemical Weapons: What Happens Next?

As the OPCW declares that Assad’s chemicals have been removed and the U.S. claims a policy victory, experts caution that Syria’s government could be retaining parts of its cache – not to mention chlorine.

Written by Karen Leigh and Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

On Monday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that the last remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria have been loaded onto a Danish ship in Latakia and taken out to sea to be destroyed.

“The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation,” Ahmet Uzumcu, the OPCW’s director, said at a press conference. “Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict.”

Though the OPCW’s announcement counts as a victory for U.S. policy in Syria, analysts say it makes little change to the fight on the ground.

“The British, American and French governments did say about three weeks ago that there were discrepancies in the stockpile and they were pretty certain there were bits missing,” says Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a chemical weapons expert focusing on the Syrian crisis and founder of London-based SecureBio. “The Syrians declared 200 tons of risin, which is a biological toxin and which the regime claimed to be for cancer research. I think there were a lot of discrepancies.”

Last week, the OPCW confirmed that chlorine gas had been used in Syria, without identifying who had used it. Human rights groups say the gas is being dropped by the regime onto rebel-held areas in crude and deadly barrel bombs.

“It is impossible to remove all the chlorine from Syria, and other toxic chemicals like organic phosphates,” he adds. And unlike with the multi-million dollar, 10-country effort to eliminate the last batch of weapons, this time around, “the international community is going to try to distance itself as much as possible from Syria.”

We asked OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan to discuss the significance of what’s being called the final removal, and any challenges that could still face the organization’s work in the country.

Syria Deeply: What exactly has been removed?

Michael Luhan: The remaining 8 percent [of Syria’s declared stockpile] has been removed from the country. The removal of all of the chemical materials that were identified has been completed. As was always known to be the most difficult stage in the mission to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons … the destruction of the remaining materials will begin within the next few days or week.

Our fact-finding mission, just like the U.N. investigation last year in Damascus, didn’t make any conclusions about who was responsible [for the use of chlorine gas]. These are not forensic investigations that don’t assign responsibility. In Syria, it is untrue to say that the Syrian government is systematically using chlorine. All that it has found is information that supports the contention that chlorine has been used systematically. It will be for others to say who is behind it.

Syria Deeply: What challenges remain in Syria for the OPCW?

Luhan: There are three bits of unfinished business for the OPCW in our disarmament mission. The first is the declaration by the Syrian authorities to the OPCW, in which they itemize all of the elements of their chemical weapons program, including: production facilities, storage sites, laboratories and mixing equipment.

In the process of removing the chemicals from the country for destruction, in which our inspectors have to be on site to provide verification that these are the materials that need to leave the country, some discrepancies have come up with the original declaration by the Syrian government. We have a team that has made a couple visits thus far and is scheduled to make a third and final visit, to get an agreement and resolve these discrepancies.

It is of primary importance that we get an agreement and that our executive council is satisfied that a deceleration by a given state party is accurate and complete.

Another part of our unfinished business is in relation to chemical weapons production facilities. In October last year we verified that all of the production facilities were functionally destroyed – meaning they could no longer be used to make chemical warfare agents.

Syria Deeply: What happens next?

Luhan: Under the chemical weapons convention, the structures that house these facilities also have to be destroyed. There are 12 structures in Syria that are slated to be destroyed. It is still an ongoing discussion between the Syrian government and us as to what will suffice to call destruction, because destruction of these facilities is not defined in the chemical weapons convention. It simply says they have to be destroyed. We hope to get an agreement on what that destruction will consist of soon, so we can get on with making preparations for it.

Syria Deeply: After an OPCW team investigating claims of chlorine use was attacked on May 27, will you continue your in-country work on chlorine?

Luhan: [Our] fact-finding mission is continuing its research, under the circumstances … but in the absence of making site visits. The first and only site visit they tried to make was in a rebel-controlled territory and their convoy was attacked, so it had to be aborted. It’s not clear whether we will decide to make a second attempt, or we will simply say that the fact-finding activities will continue without making site visits.

First and foremost is the safety of our inspectors. All of the arrangements had been made to make a safe and secure entry into that site, and someone attacked their convoy and tried to kill them, so we can’t say if we will try to make a second attempt.

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