The OPCW is 21 and it doesn't matter anymore in Syria
What to do about Syrian chemical weapons? That is the question occupying much media and political attention lately, but so much of what is said about that topic, and the OPCW mission to Syria, is fundamentally mistaken. So, on the anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Convention (29 April 1997), I'd like to take a few minutes of your time and try and clarify things a little, despite my usual misgivings about the subject.
I usually avoid discussing the Syrian conflict. If you are a regular follower of CBRNPro.net, you may have noticed. Aside from an occasional post to social media or a side reference in a post about some other topic, you will find the terms “Syria” and “chemical weapons” seldom put together on CBRNPro.net. There is a reason for that. Since the war began, much of what is publicly known and available on the various chemical attacks occurring amid that conflict is contradictory, erroneous, or just plain wrong. The truth about what is happening on the ground in Syria is only known to a few intelligence analysts tracking such things and with the entire resources of their government’s intelligence collection apparatus. Even then, the picture they see is probably “seen through a glass darkly.” The Syrian civil war is a multisided, inherently complex, chaotic conflict. Discerning truth amid such a morass is nigh impossible, even with access to a lot of information, most of which is classified and therefore publicly unavailable. Even when we get glimpses of such information, it is never the whole picture.
Of course, the mere mention of the words “chemical weapons” in a media report is akin to a trigger warning for informed CBRN professionals, “WARNING: What follows is going to contain numerous errors, inaccuracies, and exaggerated claims guaranteed to make you scream obscenities and mumble incoherently ‘it is not a gas, it is a liquid’.” The same is true, unfortunately about the OPCW and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). So, despite the morass I wade into by talking about Syria, chemical weapons, and the OPCW…I am going to do it anyway, because, frankly, it is overdue, and I can’t take it anymore (oh and Sarin isn’t a gas, either).
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, mainly for its work in Syria, is deeply misunderstood by many (most) commentators, the media, and by many politicians and world leaders who opine on it.
So, first, it is useful to explain what the OPCW is and what it does. The OPCW is an independent treaty organization (not part of the UN like the IAEA). It is funded by contributions of member states - the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Originally the treaty and its implementing organization grew out of bi-lateral negotiations between the United States and Russia at the end of the Cold War, when both sought to reduce and eliminate their Cold War stockpiles of chemical munitions, the majority of which were no longer usable anyway.
The treaty itself, despite not being (directly) associated with the UN, still shares some similarity with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in how it is implemented. Under both the NPT and CWC the implementing organization (OPCW/IAEA) conduct inspection and verification of compliance with the mandates of the treaty. Straightforward enough, but the devil is in the details and the source of much confusion about the OPCW mission. At present, Russia is trying to manipulate public opinion about the Douma attack (and the Skripal affair) by playing on these misunderstandings – and achieving some success in Europe (especially in Germany and Austria).
Inspections and verification for both the IAEA and the OPCW ONLY inspect what a signatory to the treaty declares. This is important. It means that, like Iran's nuclear program prior to 2004 and Syria's chemical weapons since 2013, the inspections only verify what the country tells the implementing organization, and then only what the treaty says it is required to declare. So, when the OPCW "certifies" compliance with the treaty it is certifying that what those countries told the OPCW, in their declaration, was (mostly) accurate. It does NOT mean, however, that those countries are "free from chemical weapons" or not in some other way pursuing research outside the confines of the treaty. The OPCW also does not determine what to do if a member state violates the treaty either by not declaring something that is later exposed, nor by using chemical weapons. The OPCW operates within the confines of the treaty and the country’s declaration. When there are no discrepancies a member state’s declaration, the OPCW can’t go poking around looking for undeclared activities. Even when there are inaccuracies discovered in a declaration, the most the OPCW can do is request a “clarification.” If a member state violates the treaty, the OPCW reports the violation to the Executive Council of the treaty organization, made up by representatives and technical experts from the member states, who can then refer their findings to the UN if they deem fit to do so, or suspend a member state from active participation in the treaty organizations activities.
When the OPCW entered Syria to "remove" Syria's chemical weapons following the intervention of Russia to prevent attacks by the Obama administration on Syria, it did so based on a declaration by Syria to the OPCW as part of Syria's signing of the CWC and an agreement to implement the treaty internally. Russia encouraged Syria to do this, and assisted Syria in the action. Prior to that point, Syria (like Egypt, which is one of the few countries who have yet to sign the treaty), maintained a robust chemical weapons capability, a capability it claimed (again, like Egypt) was necessary to balance Israeli nuclear weapons capabilities (Israel is one of the few countries not to sign the NPT). There are those that argue it is that consideration (Israel’s nuclear weapons) that caused Syria to withhold some aspect of its CW program from the declaration. In any case, the OPCW then engaged in a mission, supported by some EU members and the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), to remove, neutralize, and dispose of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. Now, again, the devil here is in the details, and we must dive down a little deeper into the treaty to understand exactly what occurred in Syria.
Under the CWC, chemical weapons are defined in Article II of the Convention.
"Chemical Weapons" means the following, together or separately:
(a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;
(b) Munitions and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals specified in subparagraph (a), which would be released as a result of the employment of such munitions and devices;
(c) Any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with the employment of munitions and devices specified in subparagraph (b).
We cannot stop at Article II, however, as the "real" definition of what is covered under the treaty is defined in the treaty's Annex on Chemicals, despite the fact that the treaty specifically says that the Annex does not "define" chemical weapons. This is where the confusion happens. While "Chemicals Weapons" as defined in Article II are what the CWC and OPCW are "in theory" prohibiting, the Schedules of Chemicals in the treaties Annex on Chemicals are the only ones subject to verification under treaty (see the Verification Annex). So, if you are a signatory of the CWC meeting the treaty protocols, you declare only those activities and chemicals regulated under the Verification Annex and defined in the Annex on Chemicals, and those are the only activities and chemicals verified by the OPCW.
That is a VERY important part of the treaty. It means that a country might (Russia, cough, cough) pursue capabilities outside of the OPCW verification and inspection regime (Novichoks, cough, cough), that are not subject to verification and inspection, and are not declared to the OPCW. While this remains a treaty violation, it falls outside of the Annexes, and so it is not one that falls under the OPCW's direct purview - the OPCW only deals in what is declared and inspected under the verification regime, and that is defined by the Annex on Chemicals. In the event of an attack involving chemical weapons or a poisoning (say the poisoning of a few folks in the UK or a Ukrainian Presidential Candidate), the OPCW doesn’t get involved, and even then, its involvement is going to be complicated because one of the treaty’s member states is the one carrying out the attack and can interfere with the investigation and prevent UN action (Russia, cough, cough).
This leads to the second big misunderstanding regarding the OPCW. It has no real enforcement mechanism. Violations are "reported" by the OPCW to the "Executive Council" or in "in cases of particular gravity," brought to the attention of the UN and the UN Security Council. Which means, since Russia is a member of the Security Council and one of the big two original members of the CWC (along with the US), nothing is going to happen. The only reason Russia let the OPCW into Syria in the first place is because it wanted to prevent the US from carrying out strikes that would likely topple the Assad regime.
The CWC, in effect, pushes enforcement to the other "member states" who may or may not impose sanctions or take other actions (including military action), though usually without UN or OPCW imprimatur. Which is exactly what happened in Syria. In the case of Syria, you have both sanctions and military action, in the case of Russia, as military action is out of the questions outside of starting World War III, you get sanctions. Though, I'd be remiss here, if I didn't point out what any serious student of international affairs already knows: sanctions seldom, if ever, work. Don't believe me? The evidence is pretty clear - a brief rundown is available here, though the definitive work on the subject is Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott Economic Sanctions Reconsidered.
The fact that treaty violations might lead to military action is the very reason why the NPT and CWC have no teeth, oddly enough, and is directly related to both Douma and the Skripal affair. The OPCW does NOT generally do attribution, the IAEA, might, but only in a very limited set of circumstances, mainly where the attacker is unclear, and they are requested by the country attacked - a situation that is primarily the realm of nuclear terrorism. There are mechanisms under which the OPCW assisted in attribution in Syria. This was done under an UN-OPCW “Joint Investigative Mechanism” that assigned responsibility for some chemical weapons attacks and the OPCW-Fact-Finding-Mission did attribute some attacks as well (particularly one involving ISIS back in 2015). But that happened with Russian acquiescence. That is no longer forthcoming. In October 2017, Russia blocked a security council resolution to extend the mandate of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism. As of that date, OPCW attribution efforts in Syria ended.
Russia was willing to play along with the process to that point to achieve its goals in Syria, which, after 2015, it sought to do through direct military intervention when it looked like the regime might fall. Since then, the military picture is fundamentally in the regime’s and Russia’s favor. Playing along to prevent western intervention or attacks that might topple the regime was a useful delaying mechanism, one Russia abandoned as soon as it became thoroughly intrenched in the conflict. Now, the Russians might be willing to let a few missiles hit empty Syrian infrastructure, but they’ve drawn a clear red line – attempts to topple the Assad regime through military action invite direct conflict with Russia – and no one wants that. Russia is even willing to test the bounds of their freedom of movement in Syria – though the US laid down a clear red line of its own when it killed a couple hundred Russian “contractors” in Syria who tried to attack them.
These new lines define the present situation. Both sides are signaling that there are conditions under which direct military conflict between the US-led coalition and Russia are possible and should be avoided. Russia wants to protect the regime, the US-led coalition is more concerned with preventing any attacks on US forces and their allies operating against ISIS and AQ elements in Syria. These are limited goals, unrelated to anything involving the OPCW, or for that matter, the ongoing civil war. This is Cold War influence gamesmanship for the Russians and US counter-terrorism efforts. Neither side really cares about what ultimately becomes of Assad or Syria. There is no evidence Russia wants to commit itself to complete Syrian regime victory, as to do so invites conflict with the US, though it is likely waiting for the US to withdraw (as signaled by President Trump). The world should prepare itself for Russia pursue the goal of restoring regime control over all of Syria as soon as the US is out. Until then, the Russians are willing to let the west posture about chemical weapons, if they don’t threaten the Syrian regime directly.
The OPCW mission to Douma (and its other missions in Syria after October 2017) will not determine who attacked whom. Determining that based on evidence at this stage is probably impossible anyway, and Russia is actively working to stymie the effort. The OPCW is attempting to verify whether an attack occurred in Douma and what agents were used. The mission to Douma, weeks after the attack, can therefore only report one of three potential findings - a chemical attack did occur, it did not occur, or the results were inconclusive and what (if any agents) could be positively identified. Such a finding isn't going to be particularly useful to anyone at this point, no matter what they report. If the OPCW says an attack occurred, the Russians will say it was a "false flag operation," the same story they've pushed for all chemical attacks in Syria. If the OPCW says there was no evidence of a chemical attack, Russia/Syria will claim vindication, while the US, Britain, and France will say that's only because Russia and Syria removed the evidence in advance of the inspection team's arrival. If the results are inconclusive, both sides will still argue the same things.
Russia is having it both ways - by emphasizing an OPCW mission they appear to be operating within the "system," knowing full well the system will never point a finger at them because they prevented it from doing so in October 2017. Further, those who would doubt US, UK, and French claims about chemical weapons in Syria - doubts fed because of intelligence failures in 2003 and Iraq (and US claims about Sudan in 1998...), will continue to find confirmation of their doubts in the muddied aftermath, no matter the actual truth. This leads to another important point about the OPCW and Syria, and what happened in 2013-2014, and what has happened since. It also includes some of what happened in Iraq way back in 2003 and 2004, in fact it takes us all the way back to the 1980s.
While I long held and still take a very dim view of the Obama administration's policy toward Syria from the beginning, and its repeated failures to enforce "red lines" the administration declared. Still, the OPCW mission to Syria did very good work in Syria, work that deserved the Peace Prize. But it is important to recognize what that work did and did not do, our third point of misunderstanding, and one that explains much about what happened recently. We must begin at the beginning with that. And no, not with this bit of idiocy that frequently makes the rounds on the ole’ interwebs:
What makes this meme particularly egregious is I sometimes see it posted by individuals who work in the CBRN profession and should know better. The sheer number of erroneous assumptions in that meme is staggering even in a medium not generally known for its accuracy. First, it is wrong about who had what first, and second, it also directly contradicts the findings of the Iraq Survey Group. It is also the internet, so no surprise on either account. In any case, for the record, I want to get the following Middle East lineage out of the way, which reads like one of those lineages in the Old Testament:
The Soviet Union begat the Egyptian CW program,
The Egyptian program begat the Syrian program,
The Syrian program (with some help from a variety of other dubious folks) begat the Iraqi program,
The Iraqi and the Syrian program begat the AQI & ISIS CW programs.
That is the short version, without delving into the details and nuance of the story. The opaque part of this story, arguably, is the shielded Egyptian program that got started sometime in the 50s or 60s (likely after the Suez Crisis). This is in part because Egypt was an “ally” of the United States since the Camp David peace accord, receiving huge tranches of military aid from the United States, which turned a blind eye to the Egyptian CW arsenal (and its assistance to Syria).
There is also a lot of evidence that the Iraqi program (and likely the Egyptian and Syrian program, too) all received significant assistance from European businesses in the 70s and 80s (even up into the 90s and 2000s, in the case of the Syrians). Most of that European assistance came from Germany, Italy, Austria, France, and the UK. In a few cases, that assistance (especially to Iraq) likely occurred with the knowledge and/or tacit approval of those countries’ governments.
Much of that assistance, though, appears to have occurred “under the radar” of law enforcement and involved less-than-scrupulous businesses and traders, some of whom were prosecuted or named by later investigations. There was a smattering of Americans involved too, and God only knows what the Russians were up to after the Cold War ended, though much of their involvement too appears “under the radar” and may have involved the odd scientist or engineer wandering off the DTRA/Nunn-Luger reservation created to contain their knowledge when the Cold War ended. Still, CW in the modern Middle East originated in Moscow, and it is coming full circle today.
I’m not going to delve into all of that here, we are talking about Syria, after all. I’ll save the “History of Chemical Weapons in the Middle East” for a future project. If you want to read more on the subject (especially Egypt) you can check out Dany Shoham’s work on the subject, which is extensive, though not without critics. The linkages here are the important piece, not just to discredit internet memes, but to the subject at hand. The long and short of it is that Syria obtained its CW program a long time ago (in the early 70s), with help from the Soviet Union and Egypt. It began its own program around that time, aiding Iraq later, especially once Iraq invaded Iran and kicked off the Iran-Iraq War that dominated the Middle East in the 1980s. While Egypt has long had the most expertise and probably most advanced chemical weapons arsenal in the Middle East, Syrian capabilities were relatively advanced, though somewhat constrained by sanctions and other restrictions on trade that limited their abilities in the 90s and 2000s. The evidence that is available, suggests the Syrians were certainly more advanced than the Iraqis.
Syria’s CW program as initially declared in 2014, included 41 facilities at 23 sites. These included 18 Chemical Weapons Production Facilities, including filling facilities, 12 Chemical Weapons Storage Facilities, eight mobile filling units, and three chemical weapons-related facilities. The Syrian’s declared “approximately 1,000 metric tonnes (MTs) of Category 1 chemical weapons,” mostly binary chemical weapon precursors, approximately 290 MTs of Category 2 chemical weapons, and approximately 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions. In addition, the Syrian authorities reported finding two cylinders “not belonging to them, which are believed to contain chemical weapons.” These numbers changed later (to the upside) in a back and forth process between the OPCW and the Syrian regime. The bit about the “two cylinders” is also of interest, though little more seems to have leaked out publicly about those.
The OPCW removed and destroyed most of Syria’s declared Schedule 1 and 2 material, the Syrians destroyed the CWPFs (under OPCW inspection and verification), and the OPCW otherwise inspected and installed monitoring equipment in the some of the other storage and related facilities. This process had some back and forth, and not everything was straightforward, but the Syrian regime lost a significant part of its offensive CW capability in the process, including its most dangerous weapons and production facilities. That is not in doubt.
By any measure, the OPCW achieved some real success. It was not complete, however. There were three outstanding issues with Syria that never were completely resolved, some of these played a role in recent military strikes on Syria, others echoed issues the UN encountered in Iraq in the 90s. The following defines the top three issues and comes directly from EC-82/DG-18 REPORT BY THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL CONCLUSIONS ON THE OUTCOME OF CONSULTATIONS WITH THE SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC REGARDING ITS CHEMICAL WEAPONS DECLARATION, 6 July 2016, though it crops up in all subsequent reports by the OPCW on the subject [Note: emphasis below is in the original]:
1. The role of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) in the Syrian chemical weapons programme. The Syrian Arab Republic declared some parts of the SSRC under Articles VI and X of the Convention. However, the Secretariat assesses that such declarations do not adequately address the full scope of the SSRC’s activities related to the Syrian chemical weapons programme. In this regard, the Secretariat finds that there is sufficient scientific and technical basis to declare all relevant parts of the SSRC under Articles III and VI of the Convention.
2. Results of analyses of samples collected at multiple locations in the Syrian Arab Republic. Whereas in some instances the results of analyses confirm information provided in the Syrian Arab Republic’s declaration, a majority of sample results indicated the presence of unexpected or undeclared chemical compounds. Such results indicate potentially undeclared chemical weapons related activities at these locations. Following extensive technical consultations on these results, the Secretariat considers that many of the explanations provided by the Syrian Arab Republic are not scientifically or technically plausible, and that the presence of several undeclared chemical warfare agents is still to be clarified.
3. Other chemical weapons-related activities that occurred prior to the Syrian Arab Republic’s accession to the Convention. Based on information made available through technical meetings, interviews, site visits, or documents, the Secretariat has been able to verify some of the information provided by the Syrian Arab Republic. However, the Secretariat is unable to verify the precise quantity of chemical weapons that were destroyed or consumed prior to the Syrian Arab Republic’s accession to the Convention.
The SSRC was a major point of contention between the regime and the OPCW, right up until the US, UK, and France turned it into a pile of smoking rubble on 15 April 2018. The undeclared agents could suggest something beyond the declaration, though the specifics of that issue are not publicly available (the OPCW maintains certain confidentiality strictures in accordance with the confidentiality annex of the Treaty). It is therefore possible that issue includes research and development of agents that fall outside the Annex on Chemicals, though there are press reports that some of the samples referred to in the 2016 report might have dated from 2014 and were for sarin and VX at a military facility that did not include those agents in the Syrian declaration. Finally, the fact that some information is “unverifiable” was the issue the UN had repeatedly with Iraq, mainly, the Iraqi Army’s disposal of CW weapons prior to the arrival of inspectors following the 1991 war and inaccurate or missing records. In fact, that problem is not isolated to regimes trying to play games with inspectors. Albania once discovered a stash of chemical weapons it didn’t even know it had because the communist era government didn’t keep records of it.
There were other issues that the OPCW encountered. In the summer of 2014, the Syrians surprised the OPCW when they declared a production facility for ricin, but that they had already disposed of the ricin. This led to doubts about the completeness of their other declarations, which were already considered with suspicion. Further, it evidenced work on biological weapons (not part of the OPCWs remit). Finally, and this is an important point, not all the chemical weapons used in Syria were used by the regime. Some of the declared facilities by Syria were not always under regime control and were likely looted by rebel forces. Further, both AQI and its successor ISIS demonstrated chemical weapons capability in Iraq prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and they are responsible for at least one attack in 2015, when the OPCW stated that the Islamic State used sulfur mustard. Since 2017, the Russians have worked overtime to prevent or block the OPCW and UN from assigning blame for any chemical attack, unless it is blaming the rebels and/or ISIS, though without the Joint Investigation Mechanism, there is no true attribution of any attack occurring that involves the OPCW.
Finally, most chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2014 utilized chlorine. While the use of chlorine as a weapon is a violation of the CWC, chlorine is not controlled as a Schedule chemical, nor can it be, owing to its wide use in industry. Chlorine is a “dual use” chemical and its production and use was not part of the OPCW mission in Syria, except where it was declared as part of the CW program and/or weaponized. Hence, its appearance on the battlefield since that time. Further, AQI long attempted to use chlorine (with limited success) in Iraq – the first publicly known attempt occurred in Baghdad way back in 2004. This is not a new thing.
In the end, the OPCW did matter in Syria. Between 2013 and 2016 the OPCW seriously degraded the regime capability to wage CW, especially with its more advanced weapon systems and agents. But that effort, which including some rather daring and heroic actions, especially by the Norwegians, did not eliminate CW from the Syrian battlefield, nor eliminate the regime’s ability to create new chemical weapons or programs. Further, the effort failed to achieve full compliance by the regime with the CWC. It is highly likely that the regime not only maintained some element of research and development it did not declare (especially that associated with the SSRC) but that it also maintained some undeclared parts of its original program. It certainly possesses the capability to resurrect its previous program at any time, and it may likely have the cooperation of Russia in doing so. The OPCW mission, despite its successes, was and is a delaying tactic by the Russians and the regime. Nothing more, nothing less, at least from Moscow’s perspective. The Obama administration fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and now with Russia firmly intrenched militarily in Syria, the Trump administration is heavily constrained in its actions.
Finally, the OPCW did nothing to impact rebel CW capabilities, especially that associated with ISIS and Al Qaeda linked elements operating in Syria, though there were military operations that targeted those capabilities carried out by the United States and coalition partners in the region, as well as Israel. The fact that some chemical weapons incidents in Syria were linked to such groups, and others were not easy to attribute, is one reason the US Department of Defense and Secretary Mattis can appear at times reluctant to blame the regime for all chemical warfare in Syria, even if they blame the regime when evidence supports it. They probably know more than they let on in about some incidents, and what they know, suggests doubts about the responsible parties. While the Syrian regime has almost certainly carried out chemical weapons attacks, probably with Russian knowledge and/or even assistance, some rebel groups have too, especially the more radical ones.
Further, the reason the Russian’s accuse the rebels of staging false flag chemical weapons attacks is because it is entirely plausible. The only attacks the US carries out directly against the regime are for chemical weapons, everything else is either defensive or focused on radical Islamic groups like ISIS and the various Al Qaeda offshoots. It is in the interest of all groups opposed to the regime to get the western powers to attack Assad, and the only time the west attacks Assad is when he uses chemical weapons. It is entirely plausible, perhaps even reasonable, to believe that some of the chemical weapons “attacks” or reports of attacks by the regime are disinformation or false flag operations carried out by rebel groups. It is not plausible to believe that all the attacks are rebels, however. Both sides have used chemical weapons, and both sides will likely continue to do so whenever they are able, and the tactical situation calls for them.
So, it is fair to say, the OPCW mattered in Syria. Between 2013 and 2016, they mattered a lot. Now, the picture is much different. The issues that the OPCW could not address in 2013-2016 remain (except for the SSRC facility, though not its scientists and engineers – the real problem with the SRRC). The options to deal with these issues fall outside OPCW and UN capabilities because Russia is preventing further OPCW actions against the regime by blocking the Joint Investigative Mechanism. It is the unresolved issues and the Russian attempts to prevent further action that led to US and allied military strikes in 2017, and again in 2018. The Russians are also pursuing an advanced disinformation campaign in Syria that makes attribution even harder. There is CW in Syria. A lot of it is associated with the regime. The regime is not compliant with the CWC. Nor, for that matter, is Russia, as evidenced by the events in the UK. The OPCW can not do anything about rebel CW (though there are a lot of people working to kill anyone associated with it). Attribution is not only harder now, it is almost impossible for the OPCW to achieve given Russian interference and veto powers in the UN. The OPCW presence was a tactic used by the Russians in 2013. It remains a tactic they are trying to use now, though in a new way.
So, for the time being, the Syrian war will continue, more chemical weapons will be used, and nothing that happens in the Hague or inside the UN is going to change anything. The OPCW doesn’t matter anymore in Syria, it is just a pawn in a much bigger game, though, in that regard, it always was.