Syria’s immediate ability to wage chemical warfare has been eliminated, the international body that oversees the world’s ban on chemical weapons announced Thursday.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that while the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons components will continue until next year, that country’s equipment to mix deadly chemical agents and place them inside rockets and artillery shells had been destroyed.
“The Joint Mission is now satisfied that it has verified – and seen destroyed – all of Syria’s declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment,” the agency said. “Given the progress made in the Joint OPCW-UN Mission in meeting the requirements of the first phase of activities, no further inspection activities are currently planned.”
The announcement marked a stunningly quick end to Syria’s chemical weapons capability, coming barely two months after the United States and France appeared on the edge of a major military action to retaliate against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for the use of chemical weapons in Damascus suburbs Aug. 21.
Experts were unanimous is declaring the announcement good news, though some offered words of caution, noting that civil war still rages in the deeply divided country and that the possibility of chemical weapons use lingers.
“Chemicals are the tip of a very deep and very deadly iceberg,” Frederic Hof, a former Obama administration adviser on Syria who’s now at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told a U.S. Senate hearing where he urged greater efforts to find solutions to the broader war.
In an interview, Richard Guthrie, a former project leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said “the threat from Syrian chemical weapons is now much reduced.” But he added, “There remains a threat until the last weapon and the last barrel of relevant chemicals have been destroyed.”
The United States and Russia agreed to a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stores on Sept. 14 in what everyone believed then would be a difficult-to-meet series of deadlines that foresaw the total destruction of weapons and the chemical components that go into them by the middle of next year. But neutralizing Syria’s ability to use the weapons proved easier than many at first had anticipated. The Syrian government provided its initial report on the disposition of its weapons within a week of the U.S.-Russia accord, then worked cooperatively with OPCW inspectors, who entered Syria Oct. 1 to verify the Syrian report and oversee the first phase of dismantling the program.
“The meaning is simple,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, who edits The Trench, a website dedicated to chemical weapons elimination efforts. “Essentially, Syria has no longer the means to wage chemical war. It is a big step.”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said that the rapid progress was a good indication the American-led plans to launch a military attack on Syria after the Aug. 21 Damascus chemical attacks had been premature.
“The goal of a cruise missile attack would have been to degrade Syria’s ability to wage war with chemical weapons,” he said. “In one month, the OPCW far exceeded what could have been hoped for from such an effort.”
Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. on Monday had received more than 700 pages on Syria’s chemical arsenal and said that U.S. experts were "assessing it now." Countryman said that the process so far was cooperative, adding that soon the U.S. would have a better understanding of where there were any "gaps" between what Syria has declared and what U.S. intelligence had believed about the stockpile.
But one discrepancy is already clear – the Syrians’ chemical weapons arsenal was far bigger than what the United States and its allies had estimated.
In a report on The Trench website, Zanders noted that while public estimates had said Syria had 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, the Syrian disclosure and the subsequent verification process put the arsenal at about 1,300 metric tons. Of that, 1,000 tons, Zanders said, consisted of nerve agents such as sarin and VX and the chemicals that go into them. Most of the remainder was unspecified, but Zanders said was likely to be primarily isopropyl alcohol, a common household item Americans know as rubbing alcohol but which is critical to the creation of sarin, the nerve agent that OPCW inspectors determined had been deployed Aug. 21.
Zanders said the Syrians declared “approximately 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions.”
Zanders said the OPCW inspection also provided an explanation for what had appeared to be a discrepancy between the number of chemical weapons sites Syria declared, 23, and the number that the United States had suggested, 45. Many of the sites contained more than one facility.
In the end, the OPCW reported that it had inspected “21 of the 23 sites declared by Syria, and 39 of the 41 facilities located at those sites.”
The report said that inspectors had not inspected two sites “due to safety and security concerns.” But the organization said that Syria had declared those sites as abandoned and had moved “the chemical weapons items” that had been there to other declared sites, which were inspected.
Ralf Trapp, an original member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and a former secretary of the group’s scientific advisory board, said in an email that it was extremely important that “declared production equipment is no longer useful,” “binary weapons systems are also no longer operational,” and that “some of the unfilled weapons have also been rendered unusable.”
But, he noted, that means the job is still unfinished.
“There is, of course, a need to inspect the remaining 2 sites once the security situation allows (which at the moment it doesn’t) but in the meantime, most of the capability of the Syrian army to use its CW has been degraded,” he wrote. “Next step: destruction of the agents and weapons themselves.”
And Zanders noted that the next step will determine “destruction methods to be used, the various interim destruction deadlines, and the order of destruction. Also on the table will be whether it is technically, logistically and legally feasible to move the CW inventory in part or wholly outside of Syria.”
He added that if moving the arsenal is seen as a viable option, “countries that have made concrete offers – reported to be Albania, Belgium and France,” will be evaluated.