The U.S.-Russia Agreement on Syrian Chemical Weapons: More Questions Than Answers

The Framework Agreement negotiated by the United States and the Russian Federation to bring Syria’s chemical weapons under international control seems like an elegant way out of unilateral American military strikes. If successful, it would remove the option of chemical warfare for all parties to the conflict, not just the current regime.

Since Syria recently acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will take the lead in securing and destroying the weapons. A little known organization, the OPCW has successfully monitored the ban since 1997.  But these inspections will be unlike any others that the OPCW has carried out because they will take place in the middle of a civil war. And key questions about how they will work are left open in the Framework Agreement.

The first step in establishing an arms control regime is counting the weapons. Under the agreement, Syria has a week to fully disclose the amount and location of all its stocks of toxic chemicals as well as related munitions and equipment, and the facilities used to produce them. The U.S. and Russia have “reached a shared assessment of the amount and type of chemical weapons involved,” but have been unable to agree on the number of facilities implicated in Syria’s program. It has also been reported that the Syrians have moved weapons around the country making tracking them more difficult. How will we know if Syria’s inventory is complete and Assad hasn’t held back a few “just in case”?

Due to the Russian insistence that opposition groups have used poison gas, the agreement also covers any chemical weapons they may have. This seems like a good thing and if the Syrian government is aware of stockpiles in areas outside its control it must certainly declare them. At the same time, it provides an opening for Assad to send weapons inspectors on a wild goose chase through opposition-controlled areas, diverting scarce resources, exposing inspectors to unknown dangers, and straining the international community’s already fragile relationship with the Syrian opposition.

Typically when a country joins the Chemical Weapons Convention, international inspectors visit storage sites and tally all declared chemicals and munitions. They place special tags and seals on the material, and return regularly to check that there’s been no tampering. The inspectors don’t stick around. They’re not security guards. They rely on the host country to keep the weapons safe. The U.S. is unlikely to trust Assad to guard his own stockpiles until they are destroyed, but is also unwilling to do so itself. So who will?

The security of inspection teams is also typically the responsibility of the host country. But where U.N. teams are operating in environments where the host country cannot provide adequate security, they rely on other means. The U.S. and Russia have committed to work closely together and with the OPCW, the UN, all Syrian parties, and other countries to “arrange for the security of the monitoring and destruction mission, recognizing the primary responsibility of the Syrian government in this regard.” No doubt there is frantic behind the scenes diplomacy to figure this out, but as of now we don’t know how weapons inspectors will be protected.

There also remain questions about where the weapons and related equipment and facilities will be destroyed. Chemical weapons are made up of toxic agent and delivery systems – you need both. It seems likely that the OPCW would begin by destroying mixing and filling equipment where it is located, which would deprive Syria of the capacity to use any toxic chemicals that are stored in bulk. The same goes for unfilled munitions and delivery systems. These are also easier to eliminate because they don’t pose the same risks as toxic chemicals.

The hardest part is destroying the chemical agent. If the chemicals that make up the toxic brew are not mixed, they could be destroyed with modest risk in Syria. But once the chemicals are mixed, they should only be treated in a special facility. Due to health and environmental risks, these are normally built near the sites where the agent is stored. The Framework Agreement takes a radically different approach, suggesting that much of Syria’s stockpile will be removed for destruction outside Syria. Russia has several operating destruction facilities which could take on this task. But the agreement doesn’t specify that Russia will do so. It also doesn’t address the dangers of transporting chemical agent within Syria and then onward to the country where they will be destroyed. So the question remains: where will Syria’s poisonous chemicals finally be eliminated?

Nobody thinks this process will be easy and many are skeptical that Syria will provide the cooperation needed to make this plan work. But the Framework Agreement doesn’t settle the question of what happens if Assad deceives or delays. It notes the availability of Chemical Weapons Convention’s procedure for testing a country’s adherence to the ban. For example, if the U.S. had intelligence suggesting that Syria had not declared some of its weapons, it could trigger a “challenge” inspection. Inspectors will also have the right to unfettered access to any facility or location in the country, even without a challenge inspection. Either way, if an inspection team found a violation of the treaty, the only path to redress is through the U.N. Security Council. And on that, the Framework Agreement simply says that Russia and the U.S. agree that the Council “should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.” Russia has made it clear that this doesn’t mean that it will agree to authorize the use of force – and indeed, Chapter VII allows the Council to impose a variety of non-military sanctions as well.

These are hard and important questions and the answers will determine whether diplomacy has in fact won the day. For now, though, we have to wait and see what happens next. A lot could go wrong. 

About the Author(s)

Faiza Patel

Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Former Senior Policy Officer at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Follow her on Twitter (@FaizaPatelBCJ).