Politics & Policy

Destroy the Chemical Weapons

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

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.

Will Compliance Be Enforced?

The Obama Administration has made much of the fact that it has retained the right under the draft Framework to take military action if Syria fails to eliminate its chemical-weapons program. Secretary Kerry said, “In the event of noncompliance, we have committed to impose measures under Chapter 7 within the U.N. Security Council.”

The reality is quite different. First, unless Syria actually uses its chemical weapons again during implementation of the Framework for Elimination, the types of noncompliance we can anticipate will almost certainly not rise to the level of noncompliance that will trigger agreement at the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, that the noncompliance constitutes “the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.” The type of noncompliance we can anticipate in Syria will include failure to declare all of the stockpiles and failure to fully cooperate with inspections and eliminations. Unfortunately, while these are the kinds of noncompliance that the Bush administration charged as violations of the CWC, the Obama administration has in similar cases merely said that it “cannot certify compliance.”

For example, in 2005, the Bush administration’s finding on Russian noncompliance stated: “The United States judges that Russia is in violation of its CWC obligations because its CWC declaration was incomplete with respect to declaration of production and development facilities, and declaration of chemical agent and weapons stockpiles.” With respect to Iran, the 2005 Noncompliance Report stated: “The United States judges that Iran is in violation of its CWC obligations because Iran is acting to retain and modernize key elements of its CW infrastructure to include an offensive CW R&D capability and dispersed mobilization facilities.”

In contrast, the Obama administration’s most recent report on CWC compliance found, with respect to Russia, that, “based on available information, the United States cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations for declaration of its CWPFs, CW development facilities, and CW stockpiles.” On Iran, the Obama administration found that, “based on available information, the United States cannot certify whether Iran has met its chemical weapons production facility (CWPF) declaration obligations, destroyed its specialized chemical weapons (CW) equipment, transferred CW, or retained an undeclared CW stockpile.”

If the Obama administration cannot even conclude that Russia and Iran, with over a decade of noncompliance, are in violation of the CWC, why should we expect it to do so with respect to Syria?

Second, the Framework places the decision-making on Syrian compliance under the auspices of the OPCW — which has not referred Russian and Iranian violations of the CWC to the UNSC — and the UNSC. Enforcement is given over to the UNSC. If the OPCW Executive Council agrees that there is a violation, the OPCW “should bring the issues directly to the attention of the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council.” Once the matter reaches the UNSC, as Lavrov underscored during the September 14 press conference, if the Security Council agrees, the Security Council will take concrete measures “and we have agreed on that.” So even if the U.S. managed to conclude that Syria violated its new obligations, and the OPCW Executive Council with Russian and Iranian members share that conclusion, Russia still has the option in the UNSC of taking the position either that there is no violation, or that the violation does not rise to the level of a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” that would justify action. Thus, since the U.S. has agreed that all matters of noncompliance have to be agreed on at the OPCW and UNSC prior to action to enforce compliance, an independent U.S. response — military or otherwise — is even less likely than it was before.

A Russian Guarantee?

On the positive side of the ledger, no nation has compiled as much knowledge about the production and concealment of chemical weapons as Russia has. Moreover, no other nation has taken Syria as a client state. Therefore, if Russia took responsibility as guarantor of Syrian compliance, they would have the knowledge and leverage to force Syria to actually eliminate its chemical-weapons program.

Thus far, Russia has been able to seek a low-cost leadership role on Syria. Leadership, however, should go beyond issuing vetoes in the UNSC and gaining agreement to an international effort to find and eliminate Syria’s chemical-weapons program that is likely to fail. True leadership requires taking responsibility.

Russian credibility should be made to stand or fall on the rapid and total securing and elimination of Syria’s chemical-agent production, stockpiles, and means of delivery. Russia should publicly take responsibility, preferably in a formal manner, for ensuring that Syria complies. If Syria again uses chemical weapons, Russia may deny the fact of Syria’s action, but the rest of the world should hold Russia as well as Syria responsible. If Russia takes responsibility, a positive result is more likely.

Who Should Pay the Tab?

At the September 14 news conference, Secretary Kerry said that the Framework includes “a clause in which we agreed that we will contribute resources, including finance to some degree. We have a certain amount of budget for this kind of purpose.” While the U.S. and other nations should stand ready to assist as necessary, the American people should not be expected to pay for Syria to eliminate its chemical-weapons program. During the verification and elimination of Libya’s nuclear, chemical, biological, and longer-range-missile weapons programs, the U.S. made it clear to the Libyans that the cost of eliminating their chemical-weapons program was their responsibility.

The September 14 Framework provides for the participation of U.N. member states, but tasks the OPCW with primary responsibility for inspection and elimination. This will not be cost-free. Funding for the OPCW is provided under a system of assessed contributions based on the U.N. scale of assessments. Based on the latest scale, the U.S. pays 22 percent and Russia pays 2.438 percent. Syria’s percentage is 0.036 percent. While we don’t know the OPCW price tag for the Syria project, the United States and its allies — unless a special provision is made at the Executive Council — will bear the vast majority of the cost of OPCW participation, while Russia will pay little and Syria almost nothing. Syria, not the U.S. and the rest of the world, should finance elimination of its CW program.


The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty created the Standing Consultative Commission (SCC), where matters of implementation and compliance were to be discussed. Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense for policy in the Reagan administration, once summed up the problem of such fora when he said that the SCC was the black hole into which Soviet violations were dumped. Expectations about the success of the U.S.-Russia draft Framework for elimination of Syrian CW should be minimal. Moreover, Syria’s slaughter of its people, the issue of its use of its CW to kill more of its people, and its nuclear- and biological-weapons programs should not be dumped into a black hole created by the Framework.  

— Paula A. DeSutter served as assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance from 2002 to 2009. During that time, she oversaw the U.S. assistance to the project of eliminating the Libyan nuclear, chemical, biological, and longer-range-missile weapons programs.


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