For inspectors, Syria remains loaded with details to work out before work begins

September 23, 2013

There is still a ways to go to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons program. The first test has been passed, but the next few could be much harder.

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad promised, his country’s initial declaration arrived at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague on Friday, a day ahead of the one-week time limit set Sept. 14 by the United States-Russia framework agreement.

Now the 41-member OPCW Executive Council (EC) must approve a Decision Document that will lay out the program for OPCW inspectors to verify what Syria has declared, secure and remove the weapons and chemical agents from the country, or arrange for their destruction there or elsewhere.

No date has been set for that EC meeting. This gives time for the OPCW technical staff — and member countries — to study Syria’s disclosure and determine what information may be needed to map out an inspection schedule and what additional resources are needed for an accelerated verification program.

The OPCW primary declaration list already requires a lot of information. It seeks details for current chemical weapons, as well as those produced before 1925 and between 1925 and 1946; and a separate list of abandoned chemical weapons. It also requires a list of production facilities and related facilities, as well as riot-control agents and their production and related facilities. There are 12 declarations needed for storage facilities — those that house weapons and those that store two or more chemicals used in weapons.

The U.S.-Russian framework agreement, which started the Syria process, called for speeding up the OPCW system. For example, instead of waiting more than two months, the framework wants “an early date” for Syria to deliver its next more formal, detailed Chemical Weapons Convention declaration.

More important, the U.S.-Russian agreement says that OPCW “should provide stringent special verification measures, beginning within a few days [of the OPCW Executive Council meeting that sets up the verification program], including a mechanism to ensure the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites.”

Normal OPCW verification inspections occur only at sites declared by the country. The practice, followed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has caused controversy in Iran. That approach is not what U.N. inspectors followed in Iraq after the Gulf War. They could go to undeclared sites. OPCW practice also is that only individuals at those declared sites, or related to them, can be interviewed. In Iraq, inspectors tried to interview anyone with knowledge of a nuclear, chemical or biological program.

Changing those OPCW practices will require approval by two-thirds of the OPCW Executive Council’s members.

In his Sept. 12 letter to the OPCW, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid al-Muallem said Syria wanted the international group to cover the costs of verification as well as destruction of its chemical weapons production facilities. Normally, the country handles those costs.

Assad, during his Sept. 19 interview on Fox News, said the cost was about $1 billion and suggested that if the U.S. government put up the money, it could also “take responsibility of bringing toxic materials to the United States” for destruction.

There other issues, too.

Under Article XII of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the toughest sanction for noncompliance is to “bring the issue, including relevant information and conclusions, to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.” Currently at the United Nations, the U.S. and its allies are trying to work out with Russia some compliance language for a resolution. The U.S., pointing to the agreement with Russia, wants reference to Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter that includes the right to use force.

Ironically, while the diplomats are arguing, Assad set the issue aside in his Fox News interview. He insisted Syria would comply with the OPCW based on its agreement with Russia. He said the U.S. threat to strike didn’t influence the decision. “Actually, we responded to the Russian initiative and to our needs and to our conviction. So, whether they have Chapter Seven or don’t have Chapter Seven, this is politics between the great countries.”

Among the resources OPCW needs to pull together are inspectors, particularly as it has faced reduced budgets.

The last new country declaration that faced OPCW verification was Libya in 2005. It had about 23.5 metric tons of non-weaponized chemicals agents and a few hundred shells. In comparison, Syria has more than 1,000 metric tons of non-weaponized chemical agents and an unknown number of weapons.

OPCW has 125 inspectors on its payroll. It also maintains a roster of retired experts who can be recruited on contract to meet peak demand periods. Under the U.S.-Russia framework, the Syrian verification inspection is supposed to be completed by Nov. 30. Arrangements for recruitment are underway.

Who knows how all of this ultimately will work out.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, however, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday: “There could be quite a good outcome, because if we get the chemical weapons, if this then becomes a basis for a transition in Syria that leads to relative peace, then at the end of the day, however tortuously we arrived at this conclusion, it will have served the interests of the world.”

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
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