September 19, 2013 | Issue Brief on Middle East
The framework agreement for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) arsenal and its supporting infrastructure is imprecise, unrealistic, and unlikely to be fulfilled. On the basis of the requirements of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria has now agreed to join, and historical experience in executing the CWC, even under ideal circumstances and assuming willing compliance, it will be years before Syria would likely eliminate all of its chemical weapons.
However, there will be ample opportunity for Syrian duplicity and non-compliance. The means for verifying and ensuring Syrian compliance are expected to be addressed in a Security Council resolution. Russia has opposed previous resolutions on Syria. Nonetheless, there are certain things the Obama Administration could do to enhance verification and pressure Syria and Russia to comply.
The following is a summary of the CWC time line for execution compared to what is described in general terms by the framework agreement:
Most worrisome are the framework agreement’s lack of precision and its significantly truncated time line versus Syria’s legal obligations under the CWC. Hasty declarations and actions are more prone to error and omission.
Moreover, even if Syria acts in good faith, it is questionable whether it is capable of meeting these deadlines. The CWC timelines were established with an eye toward reasonable implementation under stable conditions, not during an active conflict.
In fact, neither the U.S. nor Russia is currently in compliance with the CWC even though the OPCW extended the CWC’s deadlines due to “exceptional circumstances.” At least on the part of the U.S., this is due not to a lack of commitment but to the difficulties of disposing of CW. Thus, even if Syria commits to fulfilling its responsibilities, the very real complexities of this process could lead to delay. If Syria is not committed, the complexities of verifying declarations disposing of chemical weapons provide ample opportunity for duplicity.
The overarching flaw behind the Administration’s framework agreement is that it relies on the cooperation and goodwill of Syria and Russia. The CWC has no enforcement provision. Instead, “cases of particular gravity and urgency” are to be brought to the attention of the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council. General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, and Russia and China have repeatedly blocked the Security Council from taking action on Syria.
The framework agreement states that both the U.S. and Russia will work to adopt a Security Council resolution reinforcing the OPCW “special procedures for expeditious destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program and stringent verification thereof” and containing steps to “ensure its verification and effective implementation.”
However, the U.S. and Russia fundamentally disagree on the particulars of these provisions. The U.S. has insisted that the resolution on the framework agreement be adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, which implies that violations could result in punishment such as sanctions or the use of force. Even under Chapter VII, however, use of military force is not considered approved unless explicitly stated or the resolution authorized “all necessary means” or “all necessary measures” to enforce its provisions.
Russia insists that the initial resolution should not be adopted under Chapter VII but that Syrian non-compliance should lead the Security Council to impose additional measures under Chapter VII. Russia would, of course, be in a position to veto such measures.
By choosing to return to the Security Council, President Obama has created an expectation that he will achieve a resolution that will apply strong pressure on Syria to declare and destroy its CW in an incredibly rapid manner. Such a resolution would, at a bare minimum:
The Syrian saga makes clear that the CWC has not lived up to its promise to eliminate chemical weapons. The CWC is a flawed instrument lacking enforcement mechanisms, and Syria’s accession to that treaty does little to assuage U.S. concerns over its chemical weapons programs. There are substantial reasons to doubt Syria’s ability to comply with the terms of the framework agreement and ample opportunities for Syria to obfuscate or conceal the true extent of its CW program.
By agreeing to engage Russia and Syria in the framework agreement, the Obama Administration assumed responsibility for ensuring that the resulting Security Council resolution will be effective. A resolution with the above provision would not ensure Syrian compliance, but it would enhance verification and establish tangible incentives for compliance. Anything less would be a charade.
—Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Davis Institute, at The Heritage Foundation.
U.S. Department of State, “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” September 14, 2013, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/09/214247.htm (accessed September 16, 2013).
News release, “Secretary-General Receives Syria’s Instrument of Accession to Chemical Weapons Convention,” United Nations, September 14, 2013, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs//2013/sgsm15279.doc.htm (accessed September 19, 2013).
Baker Spring and Michaela Dodge, “The Folly of the State Department’s Assessment of U.S. Arms Control Compliance,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3737, September 20, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/09/arms-control-obligations-assessment-of-us-compliance.
For instance, Libya was considered remarkably cooperative in declaring and destroying its chemical weapons program. After Muammar Qadhafi was ousted, the interim Libyan government revealed that it had identified previously undeclared chemical weapons. See Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Libya: Facts and Figures,” http://www.opcw.org/the-opcw-and-libya/libya-facts-and-figures/ (accessed September 19, 2013).