Are World Powers Jeopardizing the Safety of Syria’s Chemicals?

Are World Powers Jeopardizing the Safety of Syria’s Chemicals?

In October, the Syrian government asked the world’s major powers for armored vehicles and other security gear that it claimed were absolutely vital to safely transporting hundreds of tons of chemical agents out of the country.

Many of the most sensitive of those appeals have been widely rejected or ignored, according to United Nations-based sources and internal documents obtained by Foreign Policy. Washington and other Western capitals have been reluctant to hand over to the Bashar al-Assad regime equipment that could also be used in its war against Syria’s rebels. But the U.N.’s chemical weapons watchdog believes that Damascus’ requests are legitimate, raising the uncomfortable question: are the U.S. and its allies doing enough to keep Syria’s deadly chemicals safe?

The questions come as the United Nations is in the final stages of preparing a highly risky operation to transport Syria’s considerable stores of chemical agent through live battle zones. They add to concerns about the prospects for meeting a Dec. 31 deadline set by the U.N.’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for the removal from the country of Syria’s most lethal nerve agents. On Monday, the OPCW’s director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said the removal of chemical agent may have to be delayed, though he expressed confidence that Syria’s program can be fully eliminated by the end of June.

In The Hague, the United States, Russia and other key powers have been engaged in intensive, closed-door discussions, aimed at ensuring that Syrian forces can safely transport its chemicals. But so far, they’ve been unable to fulfill the Assad regime’s requests for dual-use equipment — including dozens of armored vehicles, communications equipment and chemical weapons detectors. After all, the stated policy of the United States is the ouster of Assad; this kind of gear might help him stay in power.

The United States and its allies have also persuaded Russia to convince Syria to drop a separate request to spare 12 chemical weapons facilities from the wrecking ball. In late October, Syria had filed the request asking that the facilities be converted to commercial use.  

Sigrid Kaag, the chief of a U.N.-OPCW joint mission responsible for overseeing the elimination of Syria’s nerve agent program, has been working behind the scenes to get states to respond to the Syrian request. Her office is providing assurances that the U.N. or her office will take custody of the equipment and administer its use.

In a confidential Nov. 4 letter to U.N. member states, Kaag’s aide wrote that her mission has received formal pledges covering 90 percent of its projected logistical needs for the operation. But she provided them with a lengthy list of unmet requirements for logistics and security, including 40 armored container trucks, 19 4×4 vehicles (15 of them reinforced with blast-proof armor), 30 ambulances, 35 fire trucks, and enough food to feed 1,000 people who will secure the route and protect the chemical convoys.

"It is requested that any offers to cover remaining requirements should address only full line items and be ready for immediate delivery," the letter, signed by Ola Almgren, the director of Kaag’s New York office, stated. An attached annex assured: The "OPCW will receive and administer officers of CW [chemical weapons] technical assistance and expertise. The U.N. will receive and administer offers of logistical and operations assistance. The Joint Mission will coordinate all offers."

Kaag raised concerns about the complexity of the transport operation in a closed door Security Council meeting last week. But a diplomat present at the meeting said she hadn’t expressed particular fear over the failure to secure commitments for equipment sought by Syria. "There was a general recognition that things are not all yet in place but it didn’t feel like anyone was ringing an alarm bell," said one Council diplomat.

Syria’s allies — including Russia and Iran — have offered unspecified support to Syria in meeting its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention to destroy its chemical warfare arsenal. Last week, Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin told Russian reporters that Moscow "shall provide certain assistance to Syria by giving necessary equipment for certain measures in the framework of elimination of the chemical weapons."

One U.N.-based diplomat said that Russia is considering supplying Syria with about 200 trucks to transport the chemical agents to the Syrian port of Latakia, where it is to be loaded onto Danish and Norwegian cargo ships and then transferred to the American vessel MV Cape Ray and an unspecified port for destruction.  "Certainly Vitaly was quite vague about the details of Russian support," said a council diplomat. A Russian spokesman to the United Nations declined to comment on Moscow’s contribution.