Chemical Weapons Expert Discusses UN Agreement on Syria

The strategy and policy adviser at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Daniel Feakes, said that disarming Syria of chemical weapons will be a challenge.

al-monitor A UN vehicle drives past a photo of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the entrance of a hotel where a team of experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are staying in Damascus, Oct. 8, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri.

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un security council, syrian power transfer, syrian conflict, disarmament, chemical weapons

Oct 8, 2013

Alongside international optimism about the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons, there are also concerns that the agreement may collapse. That concern is based on two reasons: First, there is an international political game going on and the agreement is its legitimate son. That’s why the Americans are threatening to use force in the event of non-compliance and the Russians are trying to block that possibility. The second reason is practical. It is about the security situation and the difficulty of implementing the agreement amid the ongoing war.

On that subject, As-Safir interviewed Daniel Feakes, strategy and policy adviser at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Feakes recently attended an international conference in Brussels on disarmament and anti-proliferation by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). This prestigious London-based institute brought together, for two days, an elite group of leading researchers and experts on weapons of mass destruction. The conference was held under the EU’s umbrella and in the presence of its officials.

During the session in which Feakes spoke, he expressed reservations about his colleagues’ estimates, which, if true, would change the political consequences of the international agreement, while Feakes keeps his focus on the practical aspect.

In our conversation, Feakes acknowledged the extraordinary situation faced by his organization about the Syrian file. In a way, the organization was asked to quickly make a decision on Syria although it is neither qualified nor used to working at that speed. Its executive board became confused and repeatedly postponed its meetings. Documents were issued showing dates of meetings that were later canceled.

The UN Security Council finally met to ratify the US-Russia understanding and issued a resolution to disarm Syria of chemical weapons by mid-2014. The resolution only saw the light of day after a meeting that lasted until midnight. The permanent members of the UN Security Council in New York sat with their eyes on their watches awaiting the results of contacts with The Hague, where the OPCW is headquartered. There were also text messages saying: We need the OPCW’s decision for us to base the Security Council resolution on it.

Feakes laughed as he recounted those details. He said that the OPCW is now working on a “list of necessities” that the international community should secure.

“The list should be ready in a few days. We have been working on this announcement since last week. It will cover three areas: security, logistical requirements, and support in the field. In Syria, we will have an ongoing task. We sent a mission this week. Afterward, over the coming months, we will continue to send teams. It will require air transportation,” he said.

Feakes stressed that the OPCW’s work would be to search, inspect and do on-paper comparisons. Implementing the disarmament, however, is not in the organization’s scope. “As an organization, we don’t have the equipment, the facilities or the technology needed to destroy the chemical weapons. That will be provided by the OPCW member states, or they will provide the information to build facilities to destroy the chemical weapons inside Syria,” he said.

So, the organization will need not just money from the donor countries, but also teams that can handle chemical weapons. And those teams typically come from the states’ armies. Some countries, such as Russia, Italy, Germany, Iran and others, have said that they are willing to help. The EU has said that countries with considerable experience in dealing with chemical weapons are the United States, Germany, Sweden, and Japan.

To give a clearer image of the task’s requirements, Feakes asked that the prognostications stop and that enough time be given for the team in Syria. That team is working like a forward reconnaissance team. On that, Feakes said, “It will be difficult to make a judgment about what exactly to do before the experts there decide how the chemical weapons and equipment have been stored. They are now examining the status of the chemical stocks and the chemical facilities. When they return, they will have a better idea about whether it will be possible to get the stocks out or if they should be kept in place."

At the conference, Feakes was quiet while he listened to the experts and researchers sitting next to him on the panel talking about politics and about the difficulty of the organization’s mission in Syria. Some wondered whether the mission was even feasible.

A Middle East expert at The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said that he is monitoring the Syrian situation around the clock and that he cannot understand how the international community considers mid-2014 to be a realistic deadline. In his opinion, the threat to the experts comes from the complexity of the security situation, specifically from the armed opposition. He mockingly said, “I challenge anyone, any military commander, to claim that he has control of the situation. Every fighting group has its own orientation and opinion. Most think that the West will not intervene militarily. So they will not listen to what the West wants.”

But that expert didn’t hide his dissatisfaction with the results of the international agreement. He said that one of its results was that Syrian President Bashar “al-Assad’s exit was no longer the focus of the discussion. He found a way to return. He came out of the agreement a winner. … In that sense, I don’t think that the agreement has made the political track easier. On the contrary, it made it more difficult.”

Feakes didn’t comment on all these opinions. His work is purely technical, and so were his words. But as he listened to Ralf Trapp, an international disarmament consultant, explain how difficult the mission was, Feakes felt compelled to say that the completion date is not realistic.

Trapp asked the panel whether anyone remembers the American train that was sent to remove the chemical weapons in Germany. He reminded them of the many procedures and strict security precautions that accompanied that task. He said that comparing that situation to Syria is ridiculous because Germany was a safe and stable country.

As-Safir asked Trapp whether he meant that the task would fail. He said that he was “optimistic about the international agreement,” but he stressed that it “will be a very difficult process. We are dealing with a very short time frame and with very dangerous weapons that must be destroyed. The security situation will be a problem and requires all parties to the civil war in Syria to support the process. This is one of the problems.” Damascus said things that reinforce these concerns. Damascus declared that seven out of 19 chemical weapons storage sites are located in combat zones.

On that, Feakes said that at the least the safety of the team was at stake. “At the organization’s executive board, we asked for the member states’ support and we certainly want qualified teams [to deal with chemical weapons] because of the urgency," he said. "The Security Council resolution stated that the teams’ security is the Syrian government’s responsibility. But we are also closely working with the UN, and security is the top issue for which we need their support.

"The UN does not have troops in Syria. But they do have security experts. They number about 1,000 people and include security experts who evaluate the risks and decide safety issues. For this, anywhere that the organization’s experts wish to visit will be done in coordination with UN security officials, who know the country, the environment and the conflict. If they tell us that the team cannot go to a certain place, we won’t go.”

It is clear that Damascus has put itself outside the scope of responsibility for the difficulties that may be encountered. Damascus is not responsible if the agreement isn’t implemented because the chemical sites fall within the combat zones or because of the capabilities provided to implement the UN resolution.

Feakes said, “In accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the biggest responsibility regarding the weapons’ destruction falls on the country of concern. So it is primarily the responsibility of the Syrian government. But in this case, for example, President al-Assad said in advance that there is not enough money to fund the mission. And so I think that other countries will provide funding.”

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