WMDs and the Syrian conundrum

Posted by Admin On Saturday, 21 September 2013 0 comments
Getting rid of WMDs in the conflict-ridden country will be a complex undertaking, with the devil in the details
Civil wars, by their nature, give rise to extreme passions, the basest instincts, atrocities and draw in external actors, material and volunteers. They may differ in scope, intensity and location. But what they have in common is the toll of suffering, death and destruction, large numbers of internally displaced people and those seeking shelter abroad and the extreme vulnerability of women, children and the elderly. Syria is no exception.
The global community — faced with sufferings from natural disasters, interstate wars, conflicts in occupation zones and civil strife — has become desensitised and it seldom reacts effectively. At times, such conflicts have a defining moment. In the long Spanish Civil war, it was the attack on Guernica ­— though it did not prevent General Franco from triumphing. The Guernica atrocity, depicted in Picasso’s arguably strongest work, lacked realtime TV coverage to arouse global conscience.
The poison gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus — that killed more than 1,400 including children — was such a defining moment. Who was responsible for it will continue to be argued, but there can be no debate over the significance of what happened. Confirmation by the United Nations team of the use of sarin gas confirmed what many had instinctively feared, but was overtaken by the joint American-Russian framework agreement in Geneva on divesting Syria of its chemical weapons and facilities.
How will it play out, will it work and what does it depend on are the overarching questions. On a practical level, the role and ability of the Organisation of Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to implement this disarmament task and the envelope to be provided by the UN Security Council will determine progress on this aspect of civil strife.
The Geneva framework is pre-emptory in terms of what Syria must do and how the OPCW, which decides its own parameters, should carry out its role. This is understandable for two reasons. First, to prevent or at least delay a potentially imminent military action by an already ambivalent America. Second, in terms of the response to the gravity of the largest use of chemical weapons since the battle of Ypres in the First World War and the most significant since Iraq used them against Iran and against its own Kurdish people at Halabja in 1988.
There is a certain irony that America missed the Convention’s 2012 deadline for destruction of stocks and is aiming for 2023 albeit having destroyed some 90 per cent and Russia will complete this obligation by 2015.
Syria has deposited with the UN Secretary General its instrument of accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Under the Convention, the accession will come into effect after 30 days on October 14. As called for in the Geneva agreement, Syria has asked that until the Convention comes into force, it should be provisionally applied so that the OPCW can facilitate its obligations under the Convention to declare its stockpiles of chemical weapons, their precursors and manufacturing facilities.
Special meeting
The Convention has no provision for provisional application and this needs consideration by the Executive Council of the OPCW as its Turkish director general has brought to the attention of the Member States while forwarding the letter of September 12 of the Syrian foreign minister. As the next regular Executive Council meeting is scheduled for October 8, the two powers will call for a special meeting of the Executive Council within the next few days.
At that meeting, they will present a draft decision for adoption that will lay out all the requirements, the Special Procedures, that Syria must fulfil, the timeframe for declaration — expected within a week — destruction of stocks by mid-2014 and the role of OPCW in terms of its implementation. Given the sponsors and the momentum, the Executive Committee will adopt the draft decision by a vote, if necessary, though some minor changes in terminology may occur in the negotiations.
The OPCW’s own inspectors have dropped to 100 from the 270 from two years ago due to the destruction of 80 per cent of chemical weapons stockpiles. It can quickly ramp up by recalling 30 inspectors. However, a far greater number will be required for Syria.
So far, the OPCW has carried out only normal inspections of industrial facilities. Challenge inspections can take place under the Convention, but require a two-thirds vote of the Executive Committee and it has never happened. The draft decision and the Security Council resolution to follow will seek to circumvent that requirement by giving unfettered access to the OPCW or whatever inspection mechanism is eventually worked out. Getting rid of chemical weapons in conflict-ridden Syria will be a complex undertaking, with the devil in the details. The political, legal, technical and financial aspects have to be put in the frame. Issues of access, safety, accounting and destruction will pose major problems for the OPCW inspectors.
The upside is that hopefully, a deterrent will be put in place to spare the Syrian people further atrocities. The logic of starting a war to end another may be further eroded and instead more reliance given to resolving issues through dialogue. It will be rather optimistic to think a weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-free Middle East is any closer, but the two remaining CWC holdouts in the region — Israel and Egypt — will now be under pressure to become parties and have less reason not to do so with Syria out of the chemical weapons equation.
By Tariq Osman Hyder
Ambassador Tariq Osman Hyder is a retired Pakistani diplomat.


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