The Assad government of Syria missed a deadline for providing a portion of its chemical weapons stockpile to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, on February 5.
The regime’s failure has raised questions over the status of the destruction of the hazardous weapons in the region. A timetable from the OPCW stated the regime was to have surrendered its entire stockpile by February 5, though a report by the Associated Press noted an American diplomat claimed only 4 percent of the most toxic chemicals have been removed thus far.
On January 29, Director-General of the OPCW Ahmet Üzümcü told the Council for the joint OPCW-UN mission to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria, “While the two shipments (of chemicals) this month represent a start, the need for the process to pick up pace is obvious.”
He continued, “Ways and means must be found to establish continuity and predictability of shipments to assure States Parties that the programme, while delayed, is not deferred.”
In a statement from the OPCW, Üzümcü noted the Syrian government expressed concerns about the current security situation, but also reiterated its commitment to meeting the final June 30 deadline.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad affirmed Ahmet Üzümcü’s assertion, claiming that Syria is still cooperating and will meet the final deadline. The Council will reconvene on February 21 to continue deliberations on the issue.
The U.N. has required that Syria destroy its entire chemical weapons stockpile by the June deadline, and the most dangerous chemicals must be removed by March. In September, the Assad regime provided the OPCWwith an initial disclosure of its stockpile, agreed to destroy its chemical weapons, and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Although the OPCW has not released details on the stockpile, which is considered to the one of the world’s largest, experts believe it contains several deadly nerve agents such as sulphur mustard, Sarin gas, and VX.
The Assad government’s commitment to eliminate its chemical weapons and avoid further use of the dangerous materials is a large step considering the size of its stockpile, but its failure to adhere to the most recent deadline raises questions over the Chemical Weapons Convention and the extent to which the OPCW is in control of the matter.
The OPCW and the Chemical Weapons Convention
The OPCW’s main purpose is to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, and more specifically to oversee and verify adherence of state parties.
The body, “has 190 Member states, who are working together to achieve a world free from chemical weapons. They share the collective goal of preventing chemistry from ever again being used for warfare, thereby strengthening international security.”
The Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC, entered into force with 87 state parties on April 29, 1997 – 180 days after the 65th country, Hungary, ratified the Convention.
Aimed at eliminating the use of chemical weapons, the preamble of the CWC states it is, “Determined for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons, through the implementation of the provisions of this Convention, thereby complementing the obligations assumed under the Geneva Protocol of 1925.”
The general obligations of the CWC dictate that each state party is never under any circumstances, “to develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone. To use chemical weapons. To engage in any military preparations to use chemical weapons. To assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this convention.”
Furthermore under the obligations of the CWC each state party must, “destroy chemical weapons it owns or possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.”
Despite the CWC’s explicit goals and policies, the organization does not possess any major capability to enforce the imposition of its policies on member states.
The OPCW’s involvement in the Syrian situation has not slowed external interest in the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed concern with the status of the destruction of the weapons, saying the UK would continue to apply pressure, “on all parties.”
According to the BBC, Cameron was questioned in Parliament by Senior Liberal Democrat MP Sir Menzies Campbell about why the process had fallen behind, with Cameron replying, “I agree with you. After what was a very promising start with chemicals not only being discovered and removed but also destroyed, there do seem to be now indications that the programme is slowing and that not all information is forthcoming.”
Cameron also claimed, “I discussed the issue in a telephone call with President Putin some 48 hours ago.”
While Britain is displaying a fair amount of concern over the issue, Russia and the U.S. seem to be less phased with the matter. Russia has claimed Damascus will ship more chemical weapons in the near future, though Western diplomats and OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said they have not seen any indication of further shipments.
In a report from Reuters White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. was, “absolutely not,” concerned about the status of the Assad regime’s commitment to destroy its stockpile, but also added that, “Syria must abide by its commitments.”
Any capacity for Western states to contribute power to the matter has been unwavering, with the U.S. and Russia having reached a deal to avoid a U.S.-led missile strike against the Assad regime in October.
The increasingly political nature of the issue seems to have prevented any major states from taking notable action in the matter. This leaves the question of the Assad regime’s adherence to deadlines fairly open-ended, though there is still a fair amount of time until the final June deadline.