Final Deadline on Syrian Chemical Weapons Agreement Will Be Missed

By Patrick Goodenough | June 18, 2014 | 4:15 AM EDT

Members of a U.N. investigation team take samples near Damascus after a chemical weapons attack in August 2013. (AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen, File)

( – The international community will miss its June 30 deadline for the complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program, due to a series of regime breaches of an agreement which the Obama administration has touted as a key foreign policy accomplishment.

At a meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ executive committee Tuesday, the watchdog’s director-general, Ahmet Umzucu, confirmed that there is no way the looming deadline can be met. That’s because President Bashar Assad’s regime has yet to surrender the last eight percent of its declared chemical weapons (CW) stocks.

Even if the chemical weapons were handed over at the Syrian port of Latakia today, they would still need to be shipped by a Danish vessel to Italy, and then transferred to the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. container ship modified to neutralize the agents at sea – a process that will take up to two months.

Umzucu also confirmed that the regime has not destroyed 12 chemical weapons facilities, as required to do under an OPCW “plan of destruction” mandated by a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last September . The deadline for that objective passed on March 15, unheeded.

In fact the regime has flouted virtually every deadline set down in terms of a framework agreement negotiated between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last spring.

By Dec. 31, it should have handed over the most dangerous of its chemical weapons – including sarin, mustard gas and VX – for removal from Latakia and subsequent destruction.

It missed that deadline, as well as one on Feb. 5 for the remainder of its declared agents to be surrendered, followed by the Mar. 15 one for the physical destruction of the 12 chemical weapons facilities, five of them located underground.

Then the regime itself proposed an Apr. 27 deadline to achieve what it hadn’t done by Feb. 5 – but missed that one too.

In addition to those multiple violations of the agreement, the Assad regime is also accused of using chlorine gas – an agent not included its declared chemical weapons stockpile – in the fighting. The French government alleged last month that it had done so on at least 14 separate occasions since last October.

An OPCW fact-finding mission investigating the claims reported back on Tuesday, concluding that “toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks.”

It did not attribute blame, but Umzucu said it was continuing its work aimed at bringing the facts to light.

U.S. ambassador to the OPCW Robert Mikulak told Tuesday’s executive council meeting that Washington believes the regime is responsible for those attacks.

“The systematic nature of the attacks, the intended targets and other publicly available information all point to one likely perpetrator – the Syrian government,” he said. “Who else would benefit? Who else could carry out such systematic attacks?”

“The council has repeatedly condemned use of chemical weapons by anyone, and we will need to do it again,” Mikulak said. “But the council will also need to consider whether that is truly enough under these circumstances.”

‘Dragging its feet’

Without elaborating, Mikulak also argued for a firm response to Syria’s flouting of the terms of the agreement, charging that it had “deliberately frustrated the council’s efforts to complete destruction by June 30.”

He said governments had shown “extraordinary patience as Syria has ignored one target date after another over the last six months, including dates that it set itself.”

“In past meetings, many delegations, including my own, have stressed their concern that Syria was dragging its feet on removing chemicals from its territory and on physically destroying its chemical weapons production facilities,” Mikulak continued.

He also noted that “questions and concerns about Syria’s declaration continue to exist. Any gaps and inconsistencies which create doubts about its accuracy and completeness must be addressed.”

The Russia-brokered agreement covers a 1,300 metric ton stockpile formally declared by the Syrian regime, but diplomats have raised concerns that some agents that may have been hidden and not declared.

Mikulak said the OPCW council must acknowledge that the regime has not met its obligations, and then decide how to respond to that fact.

Even if the OPCW council refers the matter to the U.N. Security Council, however, there will be no automatic consequences for Assad.

The Lavrov-Kerry chemical weapons agreement was entrenched in a Security Council resolution adopted in September, but Russia only agreed to support it after it was watered down to contain no direct enforcement mechanism, and no automatic penalties for Syrian non-compliance.

Russia, one of Assad’s closest allies, has blamed Syrian rebel activity for the regime’s failure to hand over the remaining CW stocks.

Moscow brokered the agreement with Kerry at a time when President Obama was struggling to win congressional support for a plan to launch limited punitive airstrikes against regime targets in response to a deadly chemical attack near Damascus in August. The administration said more than 1,400 people had died in the assault.

Once the deal was struck Obama shelved the proposed military action. Kerry and other administration officials have since then argued that the threatened airstrikes prodded Assad to surrender the chemical weapons and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, thereby accomplishing far more than would have been achieved by limited military action.

Critics at home and abroad assailed Obama over what became known as the “red line” episode, saying it sent a message of weakness to America’s friends and foes.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow