An extended deadline for removing all of Syria’s chemical weapons came and went Wednesday at midnight.
The good news, as reported this week by Sigrid Kaag, special co-ordinator of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), is that 92.5 per cent of the country’s weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed or removed. The bad news, Ms. Kaag added, is that the remaining stockpile of chemicals is located at a site in the heavily populated Damascus area.
What she didn’t say is that these chemicals are within striking distance of advancing rebel forces, who may not know they are there, according to Alexander Corbeil, Middle East analyst with the NATO Council of Canada.
Since November, the Syrian government has described the storage facility, labelled as Site 2 by the OPCW, as “inaccessible” because roads leading in and out of the location are under the control of or contested by Syrian rebel forces, said Mr. Corbeil, who has followed events closely and said he has seen internal OPCW documents on the remaining chemicals.
While the OPCW is responsible for verifying the location of these deadly chemicals, it is up to the Syrian authorities to cart them off.
Site 2 contains at least 16 drums with about 100 tonnes of chemicals, including an estimated 27 tonnes of precursors to the deadly nerve gas sarin, according to OPCW reports.
As well, Mr. Corbeil said, there are several tonnes of something identified in public documents by the OPCW as “B-Salts.” This description is meant to provide “confidentiality” to the Syrian regime, Mr. Corbeil said, explaining that since the chemical is not dangerous on its own, the watchdog group’s practice is to allow the government the benefit of the doubt and to give the chemical an innocuous label.
Experts, however, believe the substance likely is an intermediate-stage chemical that would have been utilized in the production of VX, a more deadly and longer-lasting nerve gas than sarin.
In addition, said Mr. Corbeil, during the recent process of emptying nearby Site 3, some chemical weapons stored there were moved into Site 2 to keep them away from rebel forces that were closing in.
Last fall, the OPCW and the United Nations identified 23 chemical weapons-related sites, including 12 storage depots containing 1,300 tonnes of chemicals utilized in the weapons program. The depots were often hewn out of rock beneath military buildings, many with tunnels connecting them.
Of the 23 sites, only Site 2 remains.
The Washington Post, quoting an unnamed U.S. official, reported Wednesday that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was just “stalling for time” when it said it was unsafe to get to Site 2. It is trying to use the last of the chemical weapons as leverage to allow it to retain some of the production facilities for other uses, the official said.
The OPCW insists on the complete destruction of the facilities that were used to produce and store chemical weapons, as called for in the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, and Syria agreed to abide by these provisions when it signed the treaty under Russian and U.S. pressure last fall.
This week, the OPCW announced it is launching another investigation in Syria following reports of an April 11 attack using chlorine-laced bombs in Kafr Zita, a rebel-held community in northwestern Syria.
Not particularly lethal on its own, the chlorine causes people to gasp for breath and its chemical smell sows panic.
It’s considered all but impossible to outlaw, since it is widely used in water purification.
After OPCW inspection and verification, it is up to the Syrian authorities to destroy the sites and to remove and transport the materials to the port in Latakia where they are put aboard Danish and Norwegian ships for transport to Italy.
There, toxic chemical precursors are transferred to the MV Cape Ray, an American ship responsible for neutralizing them at sea through a process known as chemical hydrolysis. Non-toxic intermediary agents that are used in the weapons-production process are sent to various European facilities to be rendered inactive. The process aboard the Cape Ray takes about 60 days in calm waters.
In the case of Site 2, Mr. Corbeil said, it will take a supreme effort to clear the path in and out of the facility, something the regime has been unwilling, or unable to do.
“With as many as 16 precursor containers remaining at Site 2, in a hostile environment, multiple operations, under heavy escort, would be required for the removal of these chemicals,” he said.
The joint OPCW-UN mission began as a result of the Aug. 21 sarin gas attack on a number of Damascus suburbs, which led to the death of 1,429 people, including 426 children. The 14th use of chemical weapons in Syria according to the UN commission of inquiry, the events of that day are believed to have been part of a campaign by the regime to retake 12 rebel-held suburbs around the city.
The regime appears to have gambled correctly that the attack would not draw fire from Washington despite President Barack Obama’s warning about not crossing a “red line” by using chemical weapons. Instead, a disarmament agreement was reached by Washington and Moscow, Mr. al-Assad’s great power patron.
Backed by a UN Security Council resolution, the OPCW team entered the country on Oct. 6 and after the Syrian government acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention on Oct. 14, set out to destroy or remove chemical-weapons stocks, munitions, precursor chemicals and related production and storage facilities.