The Cable

Exclusive: Syria Pushes To Keep Its Chemical Weapons Factories

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has asked international inspectors to spare a dozen of its chemical weapons factories from the wrecking ball, The Cable has learned. The Syrians say they want to convert the plants into civilian chemical facilities. But the move is fueling concern among some non-proliferation experts that Damascus may be seeking to ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has asked international inspectors to spare a dozen of its chemical weapons factories from the wrecking ball, The Cable has learned. The Syrians say they want to convert the plants into civilian chemical facilities. But the move is fueling concern among some non-proliferation experts that Damascus may be seeking to maintain the industrial capacity to reconstitute its chemical weapons program at some later date.

The Syrian request — which was contained in a confidential letter from Muallem to Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — has also raised concern among some Western governments that Syria may seek to entangle the inspection agency in lengthy negotiations that could drag out the process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

The OPCW — which, along with the United Nations, is overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program — has frequently allowed states that volunteer to eliminate their nerve agent plants to convert the facilities into a production for vaccines, medicines, and other life-saving products. But states must first make a "compelling" case to justify the preservation of such a facility. The Syrian letter does not detail how the civilian chemical plants would be used, according to an official that has been briefed on its contents. Any exception to the Syrian chemical destruction program would have to be ratified by the 41-nation OPCW executive council, which counts the United States as a member. Such decisions are typically made by consensus.

Amy Smithson, a non-proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, noted that the OPCW’s executive council will have to seriously weigh what the Syrians intend to produce. "If they want to make bubble gum or humanitarian products that are essential for the well-being of Syria’s citizens, that’s one thing," she said. "But if they ask to make pesticides and fertilizers, normally those plants are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the ability to make warfare agents."

The request comes as the OPCW announced that it had visited 21 of Syria’s declared chemical weapons sites and found that Damascus had completed the destruction of all of its chemical weapons filling and mixing equipment a day ahead of schedule. "The government of the Syrian Arab Republic has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable," the OPCW said in a statement today. "The Joint [UN/OPCW] Mission is now satisfied that it has verified — and seen destroyed — all of Syria’s declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment."

The OPCW’s announcement echoed an upbeat assessment by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who informed the U.N. Security Council in an October 28 letter that "the government of the Syrian Arab Republic has extended consistent, constructive cooperation."

(On the other hand, Syria’s assistance on the chemical weapons front contrasted with the bureaucratic hurdles that Damascus has placed on international relief efforts — restricting the number of aid organizations that work in Syria and delaying the issuance of visas to U.N. aid officials.)

The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. But Thomas Countryman, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation, expressed optimism about the trajectory of chemical weapons removal. "I am increasingly confident that we will be able to complete this task, the elimination of Syria’s CW program, within the target date of June 30th of next year."

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Countryman said that the United States and Russia had discussed in Geneva the need for the "the removal of dangerous pre-cursor chemicals from Syria, the bulk of which are not weaponized not inside shells," saying it "would be essential to completing this task on time. The destruction plan submitted by the Syrian government to the OPCW embraces exactly that concept and we are confident that we will have a host country that can work with us to affect the destruction outside of Syria of these precursor chemicals."

However, Countryman cautioned that "while the record so far is acceptable we do not assume or take for granted that the Syrian government will continue full compliance with its obligations."

"We continue this process with our eyes wide open," he added. "We are about to enter what could be the most complicated phase in terms of logistics and security. That is the removal of chemical precursors in large quantities from several sites within Syria to the coast for removal on a ship to another country."

Countryman’s optimism contrasts with several non-proliferation experts, who cautioned that the hardest parts of the destruction effort were still to come and that it was unlikely Assad’s stockpiles could be fully eliminated by next summer.

"Having Syria meet its obligation to destroy its filling and production equipment and empty munitions was always the easy part," said a senior Defense Department chemical weapons specialist.  "It was never a realistic deadline based on engineering estimates, but rather that schedule was a diplomatic and idealistic attempt to quickly stop Syria from using a particular weapon system in its current conflict."

Faiza Patel, formerly a senior official with the OPCW, said the effort would likely be slowed by a pair of challenges. Assad’s stockpile contains roughly 290 metric tons of chemical agents, and Patel said that a large quantity of the deadly agents had probably already been loaded into warheads, artillery shells and missiles. That means the chemical agents would need to be separated from the munitions and neutralized, a time-consuming and dangerous process, before the warheads and artillery shells were also destroyed.

Patel said the second potential hurdle came from the unanswered question of where the chemical weapons agents would actually be destroyed. Eliminating the stockpiles while they were still in Syria would require building dozens of destruction facilities or fielding large numbers of mobile units, a process that could easily take a year or more. Patel said the weapons could be eliminated far more quickly if the Syrian weapons were transported to countries like Russia or the United States that already have large-scale facilities. It would be difficult to move the weapons to a centralized collection point while the fighting was raging, however, and shipping the weapons overseas themselves poses huge safety and security risks.

"If they have to be destroyed inside Syria, there’s zero chance the deadline will be met," Patel said.  "If they find some way of legally transferring them out of Syria and getting them to established destruction facilities, then they’d have a chance."

In his letter to Üzümcü, Muallem said that the Syrian government would bear full responsibility for transporting the chemical materials from weapons sites throughout the country to the port of Latakia. He asked that the chemical weapons agency supply the Syrians with armored vehicles, communications gear, and other equipment to enable them to transport the materials.

One U.N.-based diplomat said that Syria is permitted by OPCW rules to request converting the facilities to civilian uses but that Damascus is likely to confront opposition. “It’s difficult to see how we would agree,” the diplomat said, noting that many of the plants are on military compounds ill-suited for commercial activities. The diplomat also said that Syria’s request for equipment for transporting chemical weapons was “extensive” and that some of the items, including radios and armored vehicles, would be hard to approve because they have “dual use” military applications.

The Hague-based organization has previously allowed countries to convert chemical weapons production facilities as a way of providing incentives for countries to cooperate. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997, included a provision that allowed chemical weapons powers that signed the treaty before 2003 to convert their chemical warfare plants to peaceful purposes. Since its establishment, the agency has allowed the conversion of more than 70 facilities in more than a dozen countries. A year later, the OPCW’s Executive Board approved a request by Libya, which joined the convention in 2004, to convert a chemical weapons plant into a facility for producing vaccines and medicines for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. "There is apparently a production facility here or there that they would rather not destroy, but would like to convert to peaceful uses," said an official involved in the effort to destroy Syria’s unconventional weapons. "That is possible. But we would verify and continue to inspect the facilities for fifteen years."

Charles Duelfer, a former senior U.N. weapons inspector and head of the CIA team that confirmed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said that U.N. inspectors required Iraq to destroy most of its chemical weapons plants. 

"We went through the facility piece by piece; we might allow them to take some piece of equipment an reintegrate into a civilian industrial chemical plant," he said. If they encountered high grade equipment, that could be applied in a military or civilian program, they would "tend to destroy it."

"I don’t know enough to say that OPCW are being a bunch of wusses," Duelfer added. "But I would say that coming out of post-war investigation of Iraq, it was our judgment, the judgment of the Iraq Survey Group, that Iraq’s civilian chemical industry was being rebuilt with the embedded option of producing chemical weapons at some point in the future."

Follow us on Twitter @columlynch, @john_hudson, and @yochidreazen.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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