On September 14, 2013, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, storage, and use of poison gas, welcomed its 190th member. The milestone shows just how far the world has come on chemical weapons.

To appreciate the change, it is worth remembering that, throughout the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein’s regime used poison gas repeatedly, including to slaughter thousands of civilians in an attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988. Beyond a few rhetorical complaints, the world turned a blind eye. This time around, within a month of poison-tipped rockets falling on a Damascus suburb and killing 1,400 civilians, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a joint framework for chemical disarmament in Syria and Damascus acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In short, the outcry and action after the August 21 attacks indicate that 2013 is not 1988.

The U.S.-Russian agreement is an important first step, but many make-or-break moments remain. As Kerry introduced the deal, he announced that the United States and Russia had agreed that Syria’s chemical stockpile comprises roughly 1,000 metric tons of the blister agent mustard gas, the nerve agent sarin, and the precursor chemicals used to make other agents. He voiced Washington’s belief that the chemicals weapons program involves 45 sites, indicating a large array of deployment locations and to several research, development, production, and storage sites. (The Russian delegation was silent on this particular matter.) Compared with the massive 32,000-metric-ton and 40,000-metric-ton arsenals that the United States and the Soviet Union produced during the Cold War, Syria’s is rather small. Still, its dispersal across a country embroiled in conflict will make disarmament tremendously challenging.

The U.S.-Russian framework is premised on a highly compressed version of the Chemical Weapons Convention’s timelines for the declaration and destruction of weapons, as well as on an adjusted version of the treaty’s inspection procedures for declared sites. The convention’s inspectorate in The Hague, called the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), will carry out the bulk of the work. A close examination of where this effort will break with precedent shows just how challenging carrying out this plan will be.

First, when it comes to chemical weapons nonproliferation, things usually move at a snail’s pace. The convention itself took 24 years to negotiate, and decisions often languish in the convention’s governing body, the OPCW’s executive council. Destruction plans have historically taken many months to draft and approve, and destruction facilities take years to construct, given the need to build in safeguards against accidents during the process, which often mates explosives and propellants with deadly chemical warfare agents. The U.S.-Russian framework stipulates complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014 -- a tall order indeed.

Second, the OPCW’s inspectors have never before worked in a war zone. Doing so now will complicate inspectors’ usual efforts to inventory chemical weapons stockpiles and monitor their destruction. The U.S.-Russian framework puts the onus for the inspectors’ security squarely on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, but it is worth noting that last month, when a team of UN investigators in Damascus tried to investigate the August 21 attack, Assad apparently unleashed snipers on the convoy as it made its first foray into the field. Rebel leaders have criticized the U.S.-Russian framework but say that they will fight around -- not intentionally harm -- the inspectors. Whether Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, and other groups that might like to get their hands on chemical arms will be so circumspect is doubtful. Citing reason for hope, Kerry explained that Washington believes that all of Assad’s chemical sites are in government-controlled territory and that U.S. intelligence indicates that Syrian troops have previously moved chemical weapons to more secure locations when faced with rebel advances.

Third, destruction of chemical arsenals has usually been carried out as close as possible to weapons storage sites, to avoid the safety and security risks inherent in transporting them. (That was the case in Albania, India, and South Korea and during efforts in Libya, Russia, and the United States.) The U.S.-Russian agreement aims to consolidate Syria’s chemical munitions at fewer locations -- and perhaps even ship some to one or more other countries -- before destruction. Given the security situation in Syria, that approach is advisable but still very risky.

Fourth, one of the Chemical Weapons Convention’s landmark provisions is the right to investigate noncompliance at any place, at any time. The OPCW’s inspectors have practiced, but never conducted, that kind of inspection. Moreover, at declared sites, procedures require the inspectors to give advance notice of their arrival. Once they get there, they are not allowed nor are they accustomed to poking into every nook and cranny for telltale signs of noncompliance. The U.S.-Russian deal echoes the convention by underscoring the need for “immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites” in Syria. The framework leaves it to the OPCW’s executive council to hammer out “stringent special verification measures” to buttress that right. How the council interprets this request will be key. For example, if it decides that special measures can be employed only at undeclared sites, the convention’s routine inspection procedures will bar the inspectors from quickly collecting critical evidence at declared sites -- evidence that would be invaluable to any determination of whether Assad is trying to hide part of his chemical weapons capabilities. And needless to say, hunting around for undeclared weapons in areas of active conflict would be an extremely hazardous undertaking.

Finally, recognizing that the Syrian situation would outstrip the manpower resources of the OPCW’s already busy small inspector corps, the U.S.-Russian framework recommends augmenting its capacity. Presumably, governments will be asked to loan veterans of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission to increase the OPCW’s manpower. Both organizations were involved in the disarmament of Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. Although the latter did not see much action, the former dismantled Saddam’s overt biological and nuclear weapons programs and inventoried and oversaw the destruction of his chemical arsenal. All such veterans have applicable inspection training and experience. Nevertheless, one can reasonably anticipate a culture clash between OPCW inspectors, who are accustomed to a by-the-books approach, and UNSCOM investigators, who know first hand the virtues of the leave-no-stone-unturned method. Another concern is that the Chemical Weapons Convention gives members the right to screen and reject inbound inspectors. Allowing Assad to cherry-pick those who come from countries friendly to Syria would be disastrous, which is why the OPCW's executive council should waive this right.

For now, the fate of the U.S.-Russian plan rests in the hands of the UN Security Council and the OPCW's executive council, both of which must now transform the accord into a legally binding agreement. In New York, some diplomats will balk at the framework’s recommendation that a UN Security Council resolution be placed under the organization’s Chapter 7 umbrella, which would allow for the possible use of force in the event of noncompliance. Undeservedly so given its mission, the OPCW is a sleepy backwater of nonproliferation and disarmament, certainly in comparison with the better known International Atomic Energy Agency. The OPCW’s 41-member executive council, which includes India and Iran, has never grappled with anything this urgent or important for maintaining the integrity of the norm against chemical weapons nonproliferation. For the disarmament initiative to have a chance of succeeding, both decision-making bodies must focus on the exigent circumstances of the chemical weapons security threat in Syria, mindful of what they have already witnessed there.

If the diplomatic hurdles are overcome, the next obstacle will be Assad, who publicly issued three conditions for his cooperation with chemical disarmament: First, the threat of military intervention must be taken off the table; second, supplying arms to opposition forces must stop; and third, Syria’s chemical disarmament must be paired with Israel’s own nuclear disarmament. The U.S.-Russian deal neither meets nor addresses these prerequisites. The September 16 release of the UN report on the August 21 attacks, which found “clear and convincing evidence,” including biomedical and environmental sample results, that rockets containing sarin were used in attacks on three suburban neighborhoods in Damascus, should put some pressure on the UN Security Council and the OPCW’s executive council to make decisions that will empower inspectors and underscore to Assad that the world will not tolerate use of poison gas. Nevertheless, only time will tell if Assad will file the initial declaration of his chemical weapons capability that the framework calls for by the end of the week, which is essential for planning purposes and would be just the first of many demonstrations of the seriousness of Assad’s intent to forfeit his chemical arsenal.

After that, the disarmament process will enter uncharted territory. If things go smoothly, the United States and Russia’s plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons research, development, and production capacity by the end of November is reachable. At the pertinent facilities, inspectors will use sledgehammers and other tools to disable key equipment. If Assad’s declarations are full and truthful, those inspectors should also be able to bring the materials necessary to degrade any precursor chemicals on site. If inspectors can safely reach the chemical weapons storage and deployment areas, they will inventory, tag, and assess the condition of the weapons in preparation for possible transfer to other locations for destruction. If The Hague makes the right calls, the inspectors will also grab any electronic and paper records of the chemical weapons program, which will eventually allow them to assess whether Assad’s declarations were accurate. That is a lot of ifs.

Since Assad delayed the UN investigation of the early chemical incidents for months, kept the investigators bottled in their hotel for days after the August 21 attack while he attempted to cover up evidence by bombing the sites before allowing access, and placed the inspectors in physical jeopardy, the road ahead is truly daunting. For the time being, the world must hope that this increasingly desperate man will not do even worse things than he already has. 

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