Destroy the Chemical Weapons
In the wake of the Russia deal, it’s time to focus on compliance and verification.

Syrian president Bashar Assad


Legitimate debate continues in the United States on all the well-known high-level topics related to U.S. policy toward Syria. For the present, however, the Obama administration has reached an agreement with Russia on how the Syrian chemical weapons (CW) program should be eliminated. Arcane topics including verification, compliance, the price tag, and the Chemical Weapons Convention now bear urgent scrutiny.


This week, the Kerry/Lavrov deal on Syrian chemical weapons will be submitted to the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague. (The OPCW is the body created by the Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC, for implementation of that treaty.) This draft “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” along with its two Annexes, agreed to by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on September 14, remains merely a draft, and is therefore subject to revision and, it is to be hoped, improvement.

As a practical matter, changes to the essential elements of the draft Framework are unlikely unless the U.S. and Russia agree on the changes in the Executive Council, but if the U.S. or others can gain a two-thirds majority of the 41 members, improvement is possible. The most important change needed is to undo the inexplicable lack of priority agreed to by the U.S. and Russia on eliminating weapons and delivery systems.

Under the draft Framework, completion of initial inspections of declared sites and destruction of production and mixing/filling equipment is scheduled for “by November,” but the elimination of the actual chemical-weapons material and equipment is relegated to the “first half of 2014.” Unfilled chemical munitions can be eliminated rapidly: Libya eliminated its unfilled chemical munitions — over 3,200 of them — in one day, by driving a tractor over them in the presence of U.S., U.K., and OPCW inspectors. Filled munitions should also be emptied, cleaned out, and destroyed on an urgent basis.

Inspection Measures and Verification

Many believe that on-site inspection procedures, especially “anywhere, anytime” procedures, guarantee detection of violations. They do not. As Amrom Katz, the first head of verification for the U.S. Arms Control & Disarmament Agency, used to say: “We’ve never found anything the other side has successfully hidden.”

While the draft Framework Agreement does well to demand that “the Syrians must provide the OPCW, the U.N., and other supporting personnel with the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria,” this does not preclude Syria from failing to declare and successfully concealing a significant quantity of chemical weapons or other elements of its program.

The draft Framework states: “The United States and the Russian Federation expect Syria to submit, within a week, a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.” However, as Secretary Kerry has said, the U.S. and Russia have “reached a shared assessment of the amount and type of chemical weapons possessed by the Assad regime, and we are committed to the rapid assumption of control by the international community of those weapons.”

This can lead to situation akin to the way the Soviet Union handled the declaration of its strategic weapons in the early 1970s: The U.S. said, “This is what we think you have,” and the Soviets responded that they could “live with our numbers.” We can be certain the Syrians will not make the mistake of declaring anything that isn’t in the U.S.-Russian assessment. Apparently the U.S. provided all the data for the “shared assessment,” and Russia, in its classic manner, agreed to “live with our numbers.” Syria can also be expected to move and hide things that are in the assessment, and argue later that the assessment was wrong.

When teams from the U.S. and the U.K. were on the ground in 2004 to verify and eliminate Libya’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, the Libyans took our experts to a “turkey farm” where they had stored their unfilled chemical munitions. The U.S. had had no idea that CW items were located there, and would never have found them had the Libyans not made the strategic decision to show and eliminate their program. Now, apparently, there are two other Libyan CW sites that were neither declared nor discovered. Syria can be expected to hide much more, with deadly consequences.