The Elimination of Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Beginning of the End or End of the Beginning?

Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the OPCW, has announced that the last shipment of chemical warfare agent precursors has been loaded onto the Danish ship Ark Futura at the Syrian port of Latakia. Syria is now officially free of chemical weapons.

The OPCW deserves a lot of credit (and yes, the Nobel Peace Prize) for its Herculean efforts to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war. While this final shipment closes a chapter on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program, it does not mean the story is over. Here are five things to keep in mind before we break out the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

First, Syria should have completed this final shipment over four months ago. The OPCW’s original deadline for removing all chemicals from Syria was February 5, The delay was due to the civil war, Syria’s use of the stockpiles as a bargaining chip, and domestic politics (Syria stopped making shipments during the Syrian presidential election).

Second, the process of actually destroying these chemicals, which is supposed to be completed by June 30, has only just begun. The most dangerous chemicals, including mustard agent and sarin precursors, will be destroyed on board the MV Cape Ray. It is estimated it will take the Cape Ray between 60 and 90 days to complete its mission but since this is an unprecedented at-sea chemical destruction process, the process could take even longer depending on the weather and unforeseen technical issues.

Third, the OPCW has only eliminated Syria’s declared stocks of chemical agents. During April and May 2014, rebels reported over a dozen attacks by government forces with air-dropped barrel bombs filled with chlorine. Although chlorine is not one of the chemicals that Syria was required to declare, the use of any chemical as a weapon is outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Just last week an OPCW fact-finding mission found that “toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks.”

Fourth, Syria has still not destroyed 12 chemical weapon production facilities located in aircraft hangars and in underground tunnels. Syria was supposed to have destroyed these facilities over three months ago but has been dragging its feet while insisting on the right to disable, instead of demolish, the facilities.

Fifth, serious questions are starting to emerge about “gaps and inconsistencies” in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapon program to the OPCW. Syria’s repeated delays in removing its chemical stockpile, refusal to destroy chemical weapon production facilities, and continued use of chemical weapons does not inspire confidence that it is in compliance with other aspects of the CWC. Now that the last of the declared chemicals are out of Syria, the OPCW will have more time and energy to devote to verifying the accuracy and completeness of Syria’s declared chemical weapon research, development, testing, production, and storage. Priority should be given to the 200 tons of mustard agent that Syria reportedly destroyed unilaterally before joining the CWC, Syria’s possession of the Volcano rocket which has been implicated in the August 2013 sarin attack, and Syria’s use of chlorine-filled barrel bombs.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end of efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, but the end of the beginning.

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