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The destruction of Syria's chemical weapons is an ongoing process that began with several agreements reached in September 2013. The most important is UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which imposed on Syria responsibilities and a timeline for the destruction of its chemical weapons and chemical weapons production facilities. The Security Council resolution incorporated and bound Syria to an implementation plan enacted in an Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council Decision.

John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov at final September 14 'Framework' negotiating session.

The impetus toward destroying Syria’s chemical weapons began with a September 9 rhetorical suggestion by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria turn over all of its chemical weapons within a week.[1] At the time the U.S. and France headed a coalition of countries on the verge of carrying out air strikes on Syria in response to the August 21, 2013 Ghouta attacks.[2] The suggestion received a positive response from Russia and Syria, and U.S.-Russian negotiations led to the September 14, 2013 "Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons," which calls for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapon stockpiles by mid-2014.[3][4][5] Following the agreement, Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to apply that convention provisionally until its entry into force on October 14, 2013. On September 21, Syria ostensibly provided a list of its chemical weapons to the OPCW, before the deadline set by the framework.[6]

On Friday, September 27, the Executive Council of the OPCW adopted a decision, "Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons,"[7] a detailed implementation plan based on the U.S./Russian agreement. Later on September 27, the UN Security Council unanimously passed United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118, incorporating the OPCW plan and making it binding on Syria.[8] The OPCW, along with UN inspectors, will supervise the destruction or removal of Syria's chemical arms, while its Director-General is charged with notifying the Executive Council regarding any delay in implementation. The Executive Council would decide whether the non-compliance should be reported to the Security Council, which is responsible for making certain Syria fulfills its commitments under Resolution 2118.[9][10]

OPCW began preliminary inspections of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal on October 1, 2013,[11] and actual destruction began on October 6.[12] Under OPCW supervision Syrian military personnel began "destroying munitions such as missile warheads and aerial bombs and disabling mobile and static mixing and filling units."[12] The destruction of Syria's declared chemical weapons production, mixing, and filling equipment was successfully completed by the October 31 deadline.[13] Since mid-October, the joint UN-OPCW mission has been led by veteran UN diplomat Sigrid Kaag.[14]


Syria has been in a state of civil war since 2011.[15] More than 300 people died and thousands were injured in the August 21, 2013 Ghouta attacks, in which rockets containing the chemical agent sarin struck several opposition-controlled or disputed areas of the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.[16] The United States and other Western countries blamed the Syrian government for the attacks, while Syria blamed civil war opposition forces. In response to Ghouta, a coalition of countries led by the United States and France, which support the rebels,[17] threatened air strikes on Syria. Russia, a key ally of Syria,[18] along with China had earlier blocked efforts by the United States, France, and the UK to secure United Nations Security Council approval for military intervention.[19]

During the G20 summit on September 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed the idea of putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control.[1] On September 9, 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the air strikes could be averted if Syria turned over "every single bit" of its chemical weapons stockpiles within a week, but Syria "isn't about to do it and it can't be done."[1] State Department officials stressed that Kerry's statement and its one-week deadline were rhetorical in light of the unlikelihood of Syria turning over its chemical weapons.[20][21] However, hours after Kerry's statement, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Russia had suggested to Syria that it relinquish its chemical weapons,[22] and Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem immediately welcomed the proposal.[10][22]

Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons[]

Negotiations and Agreement[]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on September 12, at beginning of Syrian chemical weapons talks.

From September 12 to 14, details of the Framework were negotiated at the InterContinental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland. High-level negotiations were held between Kerry and Lavrov, with large teams of experts simultaneously working on technical details.[23][24] A key breakthrough was reported to occur when the U.S. and Russia agreed on their approximations of the Syrian chemical weapon stockpile (estimated at 1,000 tons of Sarin, Mustard gas and VX nerve gas).[24] On September 14 the Framework was agreed to and signed.[5]

On the same day, after the signing, Syria announced that it was acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention (provisionally applying it directly, but formally taking effect 14 October),[25] and in doing so becoming a member of the OPCW.[26] This committed Syria to not use chemical weapons, to destroy its chemical weapons within 10 years, and to convert or destroy all of its chemical weapons production facilities.[27][28]

Overview and Enforcement[]

In the Framework, Russia and the United States agreed to the following target dates:[5][29]

  • Syria must provide a comprehensive listing of its weapons to the OPCW by September 21, 2013.
  • Initial OPCW on-site inspections of declared sites must be completed by November 2013.
  • Equipment for producing, mixing, and filling chemical weapons must be destroyed by November 2013.
  • All chemical weapons material and equipment must be eliminated in the first half of 2014.

The Framework states that, in the event of noncompliance, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The Framework does not state how Syria’s compliance would be measured, or what the penalties would be if it does not comply.[30] Under the UN Charter, Chapter VII measures range from "demonstrations" to sanctions or military action and can be vetoed by any of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Russia and China have previously vetoed three resolutions attempting to condemn or sanction Syria,[31] and are considered likely to block future Security Council sanctioned military action against Syria.[17] The U.S., however, has indicated it might resort to military action outside the UN if Syria fails to comply with the Security Council resolution requiring it to eliminate its chemical weapons.[32]

Reactions to the Framework[]

The "Framework for the Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons" was received positively by France, Germany, the UK, the European Union, China, and the Arab League. Israel expressed cautious optimism, but was skeptical that Syria would comply.[17][33]

Ali Haidar, Syria's Minister of National Reconciliation, praised the agreement as "a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends."[34] He described the agreement as removing a pretext for a U.S. attack on the country.[10] Iran also stated that the agreement had deprived the U.S. of a pretext for attacking Syria.[17][33]

Leaders of the main rebel coalition, the Syrian National Coalition, were angered by the agreement. The U.S., without consulting the coalition, had changed its mind about striking Syria. Rebels furthermore worried the agreement might be a considered a de facto admission of the Bashar al-Assad government's legitimacy.[35]

OPCW Executive Council Decision[]

Headquarters of the OPCW in The Hague

The Executive Council of the OPCW met on September 27 and adopted a decision, "Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons,"[7] that is a detailed and accelerated plan for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. The Executive Council also approved Syria's provisional application of the Chemical Weapons Convention pending entry into force on October 14.[36] The plan adds detail to but does not vary from the basic deadlines in the U.S.-Russian Framework. The OPCW stated that the Executive Council had agreed on "an accelerated programme for achieving the complete elimination of Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014. The decision requires inspections in Syria to commence from 1 October 2013."[37]

Inspectors will be given unusually broad authority, because Syria is required under the plan to provide inspectors unobstructed access to any suspected chemical weapons site, even if the Syrian government had not identified the location in its list of chemical weapons sites, and without the special procedures normally required for "Challenge Inspections" under Article IX of the convention.[8]

The decision also stipulates that if the OPCW Director-General determines there has been a delay in implementation of the Decision, the matter shall be discussed within 24 hours, when it should be decided whether the matter should be submitted to the UN Security Council.[7]

The Executive Council's decision further calls, "on an urgent basis," for funding by member states of the Syrian chemical weapons elimination process.[38]

Requirements for Syria[]

Under the Decision, which was incorporated into Security Council Resolution 2118, Syria is required to take the following actions:[7]

  • (a) submit to the Secretariat by October 4 further information (to that provided on 19 September 2013) on its chemical weapons, in particular: “(i) the chemical name and military designator of each chemical in its chemical weapons stockpile, including precursors and toxins, and quantities thereof; (ii) the specific type of munitions, sub-munitions and devices in its chemical weapons stockpile, including specific quantities of each type that are filled and unfilled; and (iii) the location of all of its chemical weapons, chemical weapons storage facilities, chemical weapons production facilities, including mixing and filling facilities, and chemical weapons research and development facilities, providing specific geographic coordinates,”
  • (b) submit the declaration required by Article III of the Chemical Weapons Convention to the OPCW Secretariat no later than October 27,
  • (c) complete elimination of all its chemical weapons material and equipment during the first half of 2014, “subject to the detailed requirements, including intermediate destruction milestones, to be decided by the [Executive] Council not later than 15 November 2013,”
  • (d) complete destruction of its chemical weapons mixing/filling and production equipment by November 1,
  • (e) cooperate fully with Decision implementation, to include providing OPCW personnel with “immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in the Syrian Arab Republic,” and
  • (f) designate one official as the OPCW Secretariat’s main point of contact, and provide that person with authority to ensure that the Decision is fully implemented.

Security Council Resolution 2118[]

Negotiations over the Security Council resolution were initially contentious,[39][40][41] as the U.S., the UK, and France submitted a draft resolution that included automatic invocation of Chapter VII, sanctioning use of military force if Syria did not fulfill its commitments under the agreement. Russia and China were opposed to any resolution that authorized enforcement under Chapter VII without a second vote of the Security Council.[39][40][41] After further negotiations, on September 26 the five permanent members of the UN Security Council reached agreement on an implementation and enforcement draft resolution.[9][42] On the following day, just hours after the OPCW Executive Council approved a detailed implementation plan for the U.S./Russian Framework, Security Council Resolution 2118 was unanimously passed, making the OPCW plan binding on the Syrians.[11]

The resolution requires that Syria eliminate its chemical stockpile and allow complete access to UN and OPCW chemical weapons inspectors.[43] If it does not comply with either demand, the Security Council would need to adopt a second resolution regarding imposition of military or other actions against Syria under the UN Charter's Chapter VII.[43] The vote on the resolution was delayed until September 27 because the OPCW needed to vote first on its detailed implementation plan.[43] Syria vowed to abide by the resolution.[44]

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has stressed that the Western and Arab-backed rebels in the Syrian civil war must also comply with the UN resolution, and must ensure that extremists do not acquire chemical weapons. "The responsibility is not only on the Syrian government," he stated, "but also on the opposition and all the states in this sphere should of course not allow these weapons to fall into the hands of non-state actors."[45]

Reactions to Security Council Resolution 2118[]


Preparations and Preliminary Inspections[]

On 21 September 2013, Syria ostensibly met the Framework's first deadline, for comprehensive chemical weapons disclosure.[6] The OPCW stated it had received and was reviewing the "expected disclosure" concerning Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, 24 hours after stating it had received an "initial declaration" document from Syrian authorities.[6][46][47][48][49] The OPCW stated that it would use on-site inspections to verify the accuracy of the disclosure by Syria.[50] It would also "assist in putting into place arrangements to keep the warfare materials and the relevant facilities secure until their destruction."[50]

OPCW began preliminary inspections of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal on October 1, 2013,[11] and actual destruction of Syrian equipment began on 6 October 2013, with Syrian personnel under OPCW supervision applying angle grinders and cutting torches to "a wide range of items."[12][51] Specifically, under OPCW supervision Syrian military personnel had begun "destroying munitions such as missile warheads and aerial bombs and disabling mobile and static mixing and filling units."[12] The U.S. and Russia announced themselves "very pleased" with the rapid pace of Syria's chemical arms disarmament.[45][51] The Economist commented that the demanding timeline may mean the OPCW will deploy ad-hoc destruction methods such as sledgehammers, tanks, or concrete fills.[52]

On Monday, October 7, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that the UN-OPCW joint mission would eventually have about 100 personnel in Syria, with a support base in Cyprus.[53] In a letter to the Security Council, Ban set out the mission's three phases: establish an initial presence and verify Syria's stockpiles declaration; oversee chemical weapons destruction; and verify destruction of all chemical arms related materials and programs.[53] On October 13 Ban announced that veteran UN diplomat Sigrid Kaag would head the joint UN-OPCW mission, subject to approval by the UN Security Council.[14]

Current Progress[]

In late October the OCPW said it expected the 1 November deadline for destruction of CW production, mixing and munition-filling capability to be met. It was reported on 23 October that it had visited 18 of 23 declared sites. It was reported that "'low tech, quick and cheap' methods were being used, such as filling equipment with concrete, smashing it, sometimes using heavy vehicles."[54] The OPCW "said the Syrian government had provided complete co-operation with the 27 weapons inspectors in the country."[54]

On October 31 the OPCW announced that it had met the deadline for destroying all declared equipment and facilities related to chemical weapons production, having visited 21 out of 23 sites, and received assurances from the Syrian government that the other two sites had been abandoned and emptied of chemicals and equipment, with these dispersed to sites visited by the OPCW. The two sites were unreachable due to being in contested areas of the ongoing civil war.[13][55] On November 7, the OPCW said that one of the two unvisited sites had been officially verified as "dismantled and abandoned", based in part on images that the Syrian government shot using a "tamperproof" GPS-enabled camera provided by the OPCW.[56]

On November 15 the OPCW approved a plan to transport Syria's chemical weapons to a location outside its territory by February 5, 2014, where the weapons would then be destroyed.[57] Acceptance of shipments of the 1000 tons of chemical agents for destruction have been refused by most countries approached by the OPCW.[58][59] As of November 2014, Belgium and France were still considering whether to agree to such shipments.[59][57][58]

The countries of Norway and Denmark have agreed to transport the chemical wheapons from Syria out into international waters where they will be handed over to a United States Navy ship for destruction. The Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen-class frigate "Helge Ingstad" will take part in the operation, as will the Norwegian maritime special operations forces unit "Marinejegerkommandoen". The Norwegian government has hired in the Norwegian registered RoRo cargo ship MV Taiko for the mission. Denmark will participate with the Danish frigate "HDMS Esbern Snare (L17)" and the Danish government has hired in the civilian cargo ship Ark Futura for the mission.[60]

The United States will destroy the highest-priority chemicals,[61] which are scheduled for removal from Syria by December 31,[61] on board the MV Cape Ray in international waters of the Mediterranean Sea,[62] using an U.S. Army Field Deployable Hydrolysis System.[63] While the United States will finance the destruction of these priority chemicals, as of December 2014 the OPCW is still searching for financing and hosting for the destruction of lower-priority chemical agents, including many common industrial chemicals, to meet a February 5 removal deadline.[61]

Implementation challenges[]

UN Secretary-General Ban in early October publicly recognized many of the challenges of the weapons destruction effort, in particular the dangerous nature of chemical arms destruction during a civil war, especially in urban areas such as Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. "Heavy artillery, air strikes, mortar barrages and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas are commonplace and battle lines shift quickly," he wrote.[53] Ban added that the most challenging phase of the destruction effort would begin in November, when OPCW and UN experts begin destroying Syria's estimated 1,000 tons of precursor chemicals and chemical weapons.[64] In order to do so, they will need to cross battle lines between governments and rebel forces.[64] The Syrian government and Western-backed opposition forces have pledged cooperation with chemical disarmament, but Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups, including Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have not.[65]

OPCW director-general Ahmet Uzumcu stated in early October that completing the destruction process by the mid-2014 deadline will depend on whether temporary cease-fires can be arranged between opposition and government forces.[64] A nine-month ceasefire to allow the OPCW to carry out the entire chemical weapons destruction process was rejected by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), according to a report in Asharq Al-Awsat (a Saudi-linked pan-Arab newspaper).[66]

Also exceptionally challenging will be the movement and destruction of deadly agents such as sarin, VX nerve agents and mustard gas during the civil war.[64] The chemical weapons convention disallows movement of such deadly agents outside the country holding them, but Security Council Resolution 2118 allows extraordinary measures to be taken in Syria.[64] Some of the chemicals will need to be transported along the highway between Damascus and Homs, which is still contested as of December 2013. Syria has requested the international community provide armored vehicles to assist in safe transport of the chemicals.[67] OPCW director-general Uzumcu called the overall timeline "doable," though one of his field experts characterized it as "Herculean."[52] The Economist magazine commented in October 2013 that the timeline was "ambitious, to put it mildly," but acknowledged it had been "worked out in consultation with American and Russians experts with full knowledge of the OPCW’s capabilities."[52] Li Hong, secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, stated that both the turbulent civil war and the financial cost of chemical weapons disposal will be a heavy burden on the Syrian government, and called it "unrealistic" to expect Syrian chemical weapons to be fully eliminated by 2014.[68] Expert opinions were summarized in Foreign Policy magazine as follows: "Taking control of [Syria]'s enormous stores of [chemical] munitions would be difficult to do in the midst of a brutal civil war. Dozens of new facilities for destroying the weapons would have to be built from scratch or brought into the country from the U.S., and completing the job would potentially take a decade or more."[69]

In October 2013, Amy Smithson of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies stated that the regime appears to be cooperating, but cautioned that the Syrian regime has a "very sorry track record" on working with nuclear inspectors, and that it is easier to hide chemical weapons than a nuclear program.[70] Chemical weapons expert Gwyn Winfield writes that Syria has an incentive to hold onto some of its chemical weapons, since its original incentive for developing a chemical weapons capability, as a deterrent against a suspected Israeli nuclear weapons arsenal, "isn't going to go away."[69] In contrast, Ralf Trapp, a former OPCW official, has expressed optimism that satellite surveillance would deter cheating. Under the disarmament resolution, Syria is required to allow inspection of any site that raises suspicions.[70]

A disagreement arose regarding the number of chemical weapons sites in contested areas of Syria, with the Syrian foreign minister stating that one-third of sites are in such areas.[59] However, FSA official Louay Miqdad stated in early October that there were no chemical weapons in areas occupied by opposition forces, "which is something that the Assad regime itself acknowledges, while these storehouses are also not located on the front, so why should we stop fighting?"[66] According to the OPCW chief, one abandoned site is in rebel-held territory and routes to others lead through rebel-held territory.[70] Malik Ellahi of the OPCW states that few of the locations inspectors must visit will be difficult to access.[71]

Allegations of undisclosed sites[]

The Economist reported in early October that Syria had disclosed 19 chemical weapons-related sites, whilst unnamed Western intelligence sources believed 45 sites to exist in total.[52] However, one U.S. official said it was not clear if the discrepancy is "a deception" or merely a "difference of definition" regarding what constitutes a chemical weapons site.[72] In Science Insider, experts stated that there was a possibility of incomplete record-keeping, citing an incident in 2002 wherein Albania discovered, in a cluster of mountain bunkers, 16 tons[73] of primitive, undocumented chemical weapon agents that Albania had forgotten about.[59] Chemical weapons expert Winfield has commented that the success of the destruction plan depends on Syria revealing all of its chemical arms stockpile, much of which is moveable and may be spread across dozens of sites.[69]

Declared sites and chemical weapons[]

Syria declared 23 sites to OPCW, the location of which are not disclosed for confidentiality reasons.[74][75] On these sites a combined 41 facilities were present containing "1,300 tons of chemical precursors and agents and 1,230 unfilled munitions".[76]

According to U.S. chemical weapons nonproliferation expert Amy Smithson, declared sites are believed to include:[70]

  • four production facilities near Safira, Khan Abu Shamat, Homs, and Hama
  • six storage facilities near Safira, Homs, Hama, Furqlus, Latakia, and Palmyra
  • a research and development site in Damascus

As of October 2013, 21 of the 23 sites had been inspected by the OPCW.[74]

See also[]


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