Syria groundwork began months ago

Walter Pincus
Reporter September 18, 2013

U.S. and Russian technical experts were doing preparatory work for ending Syria’s chemical-weapons capability for months before the two nations’ Geneva meetings began Friday.

The initiative on Syria’s weapons capability had its roots in June 2012 talks between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin about Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal. More talks between the two followed, as well as talks between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

At a dinner meeting in May, Kerry and Lavrov talked about the possibility of using Libya as a model for removing Syria’s chemical stockpile under an international agreement.

The two agreed that Russian and U.S. technical experts should begin quietly meeting on details, though there was little expectation that a program would be immediately needed.

By the time Kerry and Lavrov met in Geneva on Friday with their experts, there had been five meetings of the two governments’ technical experts, according to administration officials. As a result, what normally would have taken weeks occurred within days.

According to the U.S.-Russian framework announced Sunday, “The two parties agree to utilize the ‘universal matrix’ developed in the course of consultations by our two National Security Councils, as the basis for an actionable plan.”

There was agreement in principle on the types of chemical weapons in the Syrian arsenal and on the quantity: roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical-weapon agents.

The two countries’ technical experts have continued to meet to prepare for international inspectors, who will be dispatched to confirm the list supplied by the Syrians.

That list is to include an inventory of Syria’s chemical agents, weapons used for delivery, production facilities and related materials. The last category would normally include a list of senior personnel involved in the chemical-weapons program, but it’s unclear if that’s the case here.

The inventory list goes to the United Nations, with copies for Russia, the United States and other Security Council nations. The list will also go to the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The document is due by Saturday but may be delayed until Monday.

OPCW has begun organizing an expert staff that will verify the information with on-site inspections. It will also help secure the chemical agents, delivery systems and production sites.

The U.N.-OPCW mission that reported Monday on its three-day inspection in the Damascus suburbs , which confirmed that chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21, shows that some of the potential difficulties for the next group of inspectors can be overcome:

●Carrying out an inspection in a war zone. That OPCW mission reached agreement with the Syrian government and made separate ad hoc arrangements with opposition groups for “a temporary ceasefire . . . put effectively in place for five hours daily between Aug. 26 and 29,” when inspectors were at work, according to the mission report.

The agreements were reached in advance by U.N. and OPCW personnel and included suggestions on safe roads, cease-fire guarantees and the timing of visits. In areas controlled by the opposition, one leader assumed responsibility for taking “custody” of the mission, the report notes.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that under the U.S.-Russian framework, Assad’s regime is “responsible for the security, the movement, the protection of . . . the inspectors.”

Charles Duelfer, who participated in early inspections in Iraq and led the final CIA-directed search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, noted that the recently concluded Syrian mission was led by Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish chemical arms expert and a veteran of the Iraq inspections.

The mission leader is key to its success because he is “on the ground” when decisions have to be made quickly. Also key will be the Syrian government official who inevitably will be along.

The mission chief determines the order of sites visited and whether to interview Syrian civilians and military personnel to help verify government disclosures.

●The length of time inspections will take. The first OPCW inspectors used 5 1/2 hours of the three-day ceasefire and covered three suburban areas, interviewing victims and doctors and recovering rockets and rocket parts. With that evidence and the damage analysis patterns, they determined where at least one set of rockets came from.

●Finding the weapons. It could be done faster than many expect. Duelfer, appearing Monday on “PBS Newshour,” said chemical weapons “are the most valuable and secure things in Syria,” and “the army and the government would have them in areas that they can protect.”

There have been reports that the Syrians have been moving the weapons. Dempsey has said that may be happening, but that U.S. intelligence was able to follow what was going on.

Meanwhile, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Wednesday, U.S. military forces have remained within striking distance of Syria and “we have assured the president that our assets and force posture remain the same. We are prepared to exercise any option that he would select.”

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

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