Syria: Seizing the international moment

2013-09-18

As Russia, the United States (US) and Syria edge closer to a final agreement and a possible United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution on how best to deal with the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, it may be wise to step back and consider the enormous potential that a more holistic approach could provide. Such an approach could fundamentally alter the current global discourse on weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

If all goes according to plan, Syria will accede to the 1992 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, or the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 14 October 2013. It would then be legally bound to prohibit the manufacture, stockpiling or use of chemical weapons by both state authorities and organs of civil society.

As the 190th state party to the CWC, Syria would also gain a deeper understanding of its rights and obligations under the Convention, initial implementation measures, verification-related national requirements, required elements of domestic legislation, international co-operation and the assistance functions of the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Under the CWC, after another 30 days, the Syrian government would then have to submit to the OPCW – the Hague-based implementing agency for the Convention – a complete inventory of all its chemical agents and precursors (probably consisting of about 1 000 tons of Sarin, VX and mustard gas, according to French Intelligence sources), production facilities (possibly north of Damascus, in Hama, near Homs and in Cerin) as well as its storage sites and delivery systems. However, the 14 September Russia-US agreed plan provides for Syria to submit a ‘comprehensive list’ within one week.

This would allow UN and OPCW inspectors to enter Syrian territory (with ‘immediate and unfettered access’) to verify the declaration before December 2013 and to develop a process for their destruction by mid-2014 through either incineration or neutralisation – a process that would have to occur in an active war zone and would thus involve very real risks for the inspectors and disarmament experts, unless general peace talks take place at the same time.

This then is the first element of a more holistic approach. In tandem with discussions on how best to avert a punitive military response to the use of chemical weapons by either Syrian forces or opposing factions, an ‘All-Syrian Peace Conference’ needs to be urgently convened.

According to the UN and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), more than 100 000 people have been killed in the civil war since 2011 and more than 2 million refugees have fled the country, mostly to Jordan and Turkey. Of a population of about 20 million, one-third is displaced, either inside or outside Syria. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has publically expressed his belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has already committed ‘multiple crimes against humanity’. Media reports also suggest atrocities are being committed by the opposition.

A transparent and robust negotiated settlement, involving all parties to the conflict, is the most viable way to end the protracted civil war and ensure that a just peace with sustained human security prevails. This view is supported by various organisations, including the Africa Forum – consisting of former African heads of state and government – which has argued that the ‘international community has the solemn responsibility to encourage and assist … the Syrian belligerents to urgently enter into inclusive negotiations to end the civil war through a peaceful process’.Such an approach could form the basis of the Geneva II process.

The second element is the need to take advantage of the worldwide abhorrence at the TV images of the victims of chemical weapon usage. While 189 states are currently party to the CWC, Angola, Burma (Myanmar), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Egypt, Israel and South Sudan are not. They too might have stockpiles and the means to deliver chemical-laden warheads. All (except for Angola) are either internally conflicted or face regional tensions.

International citizenry must call on these countries to also immediately ratify or accede to the CWC. Russia, the US, China (as a country still dealing with the legacy of Japan’s abandoned chemical weapons on its territory), Iran (as a past victim of chemical warfare) and indeed Syria have an opportunity to galvanise the international community’s call for the immediate universalisation of the CWC. With three of the seven non-states parties on the African continent, African states, the African Union (AU) and African non-governmental organisations have a particular role in this regard.

The fact that Russia and the US were also re-mandated in 2010 to convene a conference to be attended by all Middle Eastern states on the establishment of a Middle Eastern zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, raises the possibility of a third important element in a more holistic approach. This is reinforced by the fact that in 2003, Syria itself, while a member of the UN Security Council, introduced a resolution calling for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

On 28 May, 190 states parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) adopted a final document at its 8th Review Conference (RevCon). The document consisted of a 64-step action plan, which included plans for the establishment of the WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The plan also provided for the appointment of a facilitator ‘with a mandate to support implementation of the 1995 Resolution by conducting consultations with the States of the region … and undertaking preparations for the convening of the 2012 Conference’.

The 1995 Resolution refers to the decision made during the NPT Review and Extension Conference in 1995 that all states in the Middle East join the NPT and put their nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The 1995 Resolution also required all states in the region to work toward a Middle East WMD-free zone and called on all NPT states parties, in particular the nuclear weapon states, to support this goal. Russia, the United Kingdom and the US are co-sponsors as depository states of the NPT.

The conference had been scheduled for 17 December 2012 in Helsinki, but was indefinitely postponed by the US because ‘of present conditions in the Middle East’. Russia was critical of the decision to postpone, but could now argue that the time is indeed ripe to hold the conference and deal with the Syrian situation within the broader context of the Middle East.

Such a conference, convened as part of the Syrian ‘peace process’, would also have a positive impact on the 2015 NPT review cycle currently underway. The next and final Preparatory Committee is due to be held in early 2014 and Egypt’s absence, after it withdrew in April claiming a ‘lack of seriousness’ by some of the parties, will once again call the NPT’s continued relevance into question. This will provide a unique opportunity to move Egypt and Israel’s ratification of the CWC forward and build momentum for the universalisation of all WMD-related conventions in the Middle East.

These three elements of a more comprehensive approach to the Syrian crisis have the potential to fundamentally alter the current global WMD discourse, particularly with respect to the Middle East. This broader approach would also positively affect and certainly strengthen a range of international WMD disarmament and non-proliferation regimes – an approach that Africa as a declared nuclear weapon-free zone, has long been calling for.

Noel Stott, Senior Research Fellow, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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