October 17, 2013

The Return of Chemical Weapons Threats

The international community should take the Syrian and related chemical crises as a wakeup call to renew its national defenses against chemical weapons.

It has been almost one century since the world first understood that it confronted a serious chemical weapons threat. Starting in World War I, and continuing throughout much of the 20th century, a wide variety of dangerous chemicals—in liquid, gas, or solid form—have been developed and sometimes used as weapons. Depending on their properties, they disrupt different human organisms and kill or incapacitate through suffocation, causing painful blusters, and other damage. Common groups of chemical weapons (CW) include nerve agents, mustard agents, hydrogen cyanide, tear gases, arsines, psychotomimetic agents, toxins and potential CW agents.
The widespread popular revulsion regarding their effects led to movements to ban chemical weapons. The 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, which forbids the employment of chemical and bacteriological agents in war, proved ineffective in application. Although mutual deterrence apparently prevented the use of chemical weapons in Europe during World War II, the governments of Italy and Japan readily used them against countries—Ethiopia and China, respectively—lacking the means to retaliate. Although many NATO and Soviet bloc countries developed chemical weapons during the Cold War, improvements in the defense capabilities of potential adversaries and the advent of more destructive nuclear weapons led to a devaluation of their military role among the great powers.
The declining military utility of chemical weapons for the major world’s militaries, combined with the increased fears about the potential for the further proliferation of dangerous chemical warfare agents and technologies to rogue states or terrorist groups, led the international community to agree to the total elimination of chemical weapons following the end of the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. After decades of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on the text, the UN General Assembly, on November 30, 1992, adopted the “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction” (A/RES/47/39).  With its entry into force on April 29, 1997, the more comprehensive Chemical Weapons Convention has superseded and extended the obligations states have assumed under the Geneva Protocol, which does not contain language limiting the production, stockpiling or transfer of chemical weapons. In addition, the CWC does not allow States Parties to condition their adherence of its provisions. Many State Parties of the Geneva Protocol adopted reservations that its obligations would cease if another party used prohibited weapons against them. In contrast, even if a CWC party is attacked with chemical weapons, it is prohibited from responding in kind. Instead, its government is expected to seek assistance from the other CWC States Parties, as well as the United Nations Security Council.
The recurring allegations of chemical weapons use during the Syrian civil war have proven an especially difficult challenge for the international community. For more than a year, both the Syrian government and the insurgents have accused each other of employing chemical weapons on multiple occasions. The rebels’ possession, let alone use of chemical weapons, has never been proven. In contrast, the Syrian government is widely suspected of having one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, including a range of chemical agents (from unsophisticated choking agents to advanced nerve agents), several delivery systems (such as missiles, bombs, and shells), and multiple stockpiles in which the chemical precursors can be rapidly combined to arm the weapons. Since Syria’s ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons have been thwarted, its chemical weapons are seen as partly an equalizer to Israel’s suspected nuclear weapons.
Before the recent Russia-U.S. Geneva demilitarization agreement, Syrian government representatives suggested they saw chemical weapons as a deterrent against foreign military intervention in the Syrian civil war. Assad’s forces could have employed them against Turkey or Israel. Although Israel’s population is better protected from chemical weapons than Turkey’s civilians, the Syrian government might have attacked Israel for the same reason that Saddam Hussein did in 1991 strategy—to try to drag Israel into the war to change the conflict’s regional dynamics, perhaps leading some Arab states to reduce their support for Assad’s opponents. The greatest danger for the United States and its allies is that the Syrian government might lose control of its chemical weapons, either during the current fighting or after the Assad regime falls. It is possible that the al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Syria, or Assad’s Hezbollah ally in Lebanon, might seize or be transferred some of Syria’s large CW stockpile.
If realized, the elimination plan would achieve the stated objectives of the planned U.S. military strike—to degrade the regime’s chemical weapons and deter their further use by Syria or other states. It would also keep the chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists while avoiding the ecological risks of striking hot sites or undermining the regime’s command and control of the weapons. In all likelihood, the Assad regime would have sustained the strike and then declared victory, while the Obama administration would feel more comfortable about the credibility of its “Red Lines” –but one never knows. Most importantly, the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, will occur without the 75,000 U.S. troops that the Pentagon said they would need to seize, secure, and guard the weapons and facilities—though one suspects that high figure was offered mainly to discourage the United States from attempting such an endeavor.
Nonetheless, implementation remains tricky. The Syrian government has, with surprising alacrity, made its required declarations of its chemical weapons storage and production facilities. The Russia-U.S. agreement decided in September in Geneva would destroy Syria’s weapons by 2014. The agreed-upon schedule for disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons is completely unprecedented, having been accelerated to fit what is several years’ worth of work into several months.   It is estimated that Syria has approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors.  The Syrian government lacks the expertise and perhaps the money to implement such an accelerated timetable—let alone in the midst of a civil war. Disposing of chemical weapons is a dangerous process that must be done carefully by trained personnel in specialized facilities. Syria has neither.
The safety of the foreign inspectors and chemical demilitarization advisers remains questionable, as Syria’s civil war shows no signs of ending and some groups have incentives to harm them or at least disrupt the process. The ongoing fighting presents the risk that that the chemical weapons could be accidentally or purposefully set off. The Syrian government is responsible for ensuring the inspectors safety’, but its agility to do so is questionable.  The mainstream rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, have stated that they would not impede the chemical disarmament process, but they are deeply disappointed by the U.S. decision to suspend its planned military strike against the Syrian government and refuse to accept a ceasefire.  The more radical al-Qaeda affiliated opposition feared the U.S. would attack its fighters as well as the Syrian government (not necessarily a bad idea) and has been silent regarding how it will treat any UN agreement. It is not inconceivable that the extremists would try to obtain weapons from Assad’s stockpile, Libya, or some other source and then use them against the more moderate opposition.
Some of these problems with the Syrian elimination effort can be reduced through good tactics. Many of the chemical weapons could be moved off-site—perhaps to Russia, which has a comprehensive chemical weapons elimination infrastructure, funded originally with billions of dollars of Western assistance, but by now largely supported by Russian government expenditures. Many of the weapons are of Soviet design, so Russia would also have good expertise to achieve their elimination as well as the needed elimination capacity to do so. The Organization of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has waived certain restrictions (such as the prohibition of moving chemical weapons internationally, which would prevent their possible relocation to Russia for safekeeping and destruction).
Destroying Syria’s chemicals weapons is important, but placing them under international supervision and control is also an important measure than can be achieved much more rapidly. With OPCW technical advisers, the Syrian government should be able to quickly destroy the production facilities and place the stocks under international supervision. The division of authority between the OPCW, the UN Security Council, and the other parties involved in the demilitarization effort remains unhelpfully unclear. And actually eliminating the weapons will prove very demanding, though if most of the weapons remain in separate (binary) form, this will prove easier. Even if they remain in Syria, the two components of the binary weapons should be kept far apart. Destroying Syria’s chemicals weapons is essential, but placing them under international supervision and control also an important measure than can be achieved much more rapidly.
The international community should take the Syrian and related chemical crises as a wakeup call to renew its national defenses against chemical weapons. Although recent news coverage has focused on the threats in the Middle East, North Korea is thought to have one of the world’s largest operational chemical weapons arsenals. The announcement a few years ago that South Korea had eliminated its own chemical weapons, like the earlier removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from ROK territory, had little impact on North Korea’s chemical weapons policy, partly because Seoul had always declined to publicize its chemical weapons holdings or elimination efforts. A more pressing concern is that might offer their chemical weapons or their components and technologies since North Koreans seem willing to sell anything to anyone for the right price. In addition to defending South Koreans and U.S. soldiers and civilians from a DPRK chemical weapons attack, they might need to intervene in the North should the DPRK regime collapse and, as in Syria and Libya, the specter of non-state actors seizing or selling the chemical weapons to other buyers.
Europeans may also be vulnerable to chemical weapons threats. The Soviet Union had the largest chemical weapons program in history. The Russian government, with Western assistance, has eliminated many of these weapons, but some are still usable and perhaps vulnerable to seizure by terrorists or sale by transnational criminal organizations.
NATO militaries have better chemical weapons defenses than most other armed forces, but they still can improve its policies in this area. Much of the equipment and other items that NATO and EU members have pledged to offer a country suffering a chemical attack is reaching the end of their anticipated operational life and needs replacement. In addition, many of those countries that have pledged to render assistance to a country suffering from a chemical incident lack the means to transport their aid packages to distant locations. It also remains unclear whether some of their pledged assistance has concurrently been offered to other organizations who might also respond to a WMD emergency (e.g., a European country has pledged the same assistance to both NATO and the EU). In such cases of concurrency, the provider would have to divide or share its emergency aid among these institutions. The OPCW does have its own stockpile of protective equipment suitable for about 1,000 people, but a major chemical incident would require considerably more assistance.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.