Syrian Government Off to Good Start With OPCW, But Why Is Peace Conference Six Weeks Away?

The Washington Post reports this morning that the Syrian government has been “businesslike and efficient” in its dealings with the OPCW and that things are on track for representatives from the OPCW to be inside Syria tomorrow to start working on the details of destroying Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile. Considering how rapidly the UN Security Council resolution passed unanimously on Friday evening was put together, though, it remains a mystery to me why the UN is waiting until mid-November for a peace conference to begin in Geneva.

The good news from OPCW:

Inspectors from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said they would arrive in Damascus midday Tuesday and spend a week in the city before starting visits to chemical weapons facilities declared by the Syrian government. The OPCW officials said the details of the Syrian declaration appeared to line up with external intelligence assessments of what the government possesses, giving them optimism that the regime was being cooperative.

“It’s been good business so far,” said an OPCW official, speaking at a briefing for reporters under the condition of anonymity. “So far, our interactions with the Syrians have been very businesslike and efficient.”

The difficulties that the inspectors will face underline why I have been stating all along that a ceasefire is an important component of destroying the chemical weapons:

Another OPCW official said inspection teams may not even be able to reach every declared chemical weapons site because of security concerns. The inspectors will be working with unarmed U.N. security guards and under the protection of Syrian government forces, but significant portions of Syrian territory are not under the full control of Assad’s military.

“It may be that we are not in a position to go to some of these locations,” the official said. “We are not a military unit.”

It is difficult to tell from the phrasing here whether some of the sites where the inspection teams will work are under rebel control or whether the teams merely need to pass through rebel-held territory in order to reach sites still under government control. In either case, a ceasefire would make the work much more likely to be successful.

Even though it appears that the teams intend to destroy the equipment that Syria could use to do the final mixing of the two chemical precursors composing the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons by November 1, much work will still be needed to destroy the chemicals themselves. Waiting until mid-November to start the peace conference seems a poor choice to me:

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday urged the National Coalition for the Syrian opposition forces to reach out to other groups and forge an agreement on a united delegation for an upcoming peace conference in Geneva. Reports suggest that the peace conference will be held in mid-November. Hectic parleys are on in New York, to firm up the exact date, which is expected to be finalised this week. Meanwhile, it was known that Iran may also participate in the peace talks.

In his meeting with Ahmad al-Jarba, president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, in New York on Saturday, the Secretary-General welcomed the opposition’s commitment to send a delegation to the upcoming peace conference.

Ban “urged the National Coalition to reach out to other opposition groups and agree on a representative and united delegation,” states the readout issued by the Secretary-General’s spokesperson.

If we break through all the noise about chemical weapons, the humanitarian crisis of the Syrian war is huge:

Since March 2011, the Syrian civil war has claimed over 100,000 lives. The civil war has displaced over 4 million people within Syria and sent more that 2 million people fleeing for safety to neighbouring countries.

Let’s hope that this peace conference is more successful than the last one:

A first Syria peace conference was held in Geneva in June 2012. The 2012 conference agreed that there should be a transitional government in Syria with full executive powers and called for a new conference to decide how to implement the accord.

The fact that Iran, a strong ally of the Assad government, is likely to take in part in this conference seems to bode well for it to make real progress on bringing hostilities to an end. I just wish the timing were more in concert with the planned actions on rounding up and disposing of the chemical weapon precursors.

8 replies
  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Ban Ki-Moon has said that there will be only one rebel delegation at Geneva II. It’s going to take at least six weeks to work that out. And countries need some time to get their positions and a delegation together. They’ve been scrambling for the past five weeks.

    The delegations to a conference like this will include experts in regional issues, military, experts on the chemical weapons issue, and other experts. The delegations to the talks for the Framework were twenty-five each from the Russians and the Americans. The delegations to Geneva II will be larger.

  2. Denis says:

    I don’t understand your fuss about tying the elimination of CW to the talks, which may never happen at all. We’re destroying CW here, we’re averting what could have been disastrous military intervention. The talks could explode and bring an end to the whole delicate initiative. Why are we whining about talks that 1) may never happen, 2) probably will go nowhere if they do happen, and 3) could well be counter-productive to the destruction of the CW?

    The talks will help OPCW get to all of Assad’s CW? Is that the point?

    You quote OPCW: “The inspectors will be working with unarmed U.N. security guards and under the protection of Syrian government forces, but significant portions of Syrian territory are not under the full control of Assad’s military.”

    This is non sequitur. The fact that SAA does not control parts of Syria is evident. It is relevant to the CW destruction only if there is any Syrian CW in those parts of Syria not under SAA control, in which case it is no longer Syrian CW — it is insurgent CW, and no one, as far as I can see, is threatening to bomb the insurgents if they don’t give up their CW.

    The more pertinent question is: After Assad destroys all of his CW, who is going to force the insurgents and Israel to destroy theirs?

  3. Jim White says:

    @Denis: As I’ve stated in virtually all of my Syria posts, I firmly believe that if the chemical weapons are to be destroyed, a true ceasefire will need to be in effect. I see the concept of putting together a ceasefire and a peace conference as naturally complimentary with each other, so I’d like to see the conference get the same kind of fast-tracking that the CW inspection and destruction process is having.

    And yes, in the best outcome, a fruitful peace conference would open the door to further talks on regional destruction of WMD, regardless of who owns them.

  4. TarheelDem says:

    The schedule under Kerry-Lavrov was destruction of all mixing and production equipment by the end of November. Six weeks from now is two weeks short of that deadline. If that task moves as rapidly as the declaration process, the material situation on the ground will be much different in six weeks. At that point it will be physically impossible for the Syrian government to be accused of crossing Obama’s bright red line; US intervention will effectively be off the table.

    Six weeks allows the US and Russia the opportunity to negotiate the dialing back of intervention from outside. The US part of that means diplomacy with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey–all of whom will have some sorts of interests, if not conditions, that will be relevant to the conference when it begins. In addition, the folks supporting the rebels from outside will also have to convince them to participate in good faith (a tough request). And that will leave figuring out what to do with the rebel groups that are not controlled by external nation states. Lots of heavy diplomatic lifting and arm-twisting that is involved over the next six weeks.

    The security situation likely affects the distribution of the binary chemical stocks most of all. But in six weeks, the negotiators will know how much of the mixing and production equipment remains. A ceasefire likely becomes the first confidence-building step of the conference, even one prior to the conference opening. During any ceasefire the most effective way of removing the chemical stocks is through Lebanon to shipment across the Mediterranean to US, Russian, or other agreed-upon destruction facilities. The US (or Russia under Nunn-Lugar procedures on behalf of the US) is going to want to supervise and verify the destruction of the chemical stocks.

    Isn’t it time to backfoot Bibi Netayahu by making Israel’s joining nonproliferation agreements and implementing them a condition of that $3.1 billion that the US has been forking over each year?

    On CWC, it’s just Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, South Sudan and North Korea remaining outside the agreement. On NPT, it’s Israel, India, Pakistan, South Sudan, and North Korea. It seems like Angola and South Sudan are just matters of getting the paperwork and inspections done.

  5. Denis says:


    “US intervention will effectively be off the table.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I am delighted by the way the US public put the kabosh on Obama’s war rhetoric and by Assad’s defusing the situation.

    But even with Assad’s CW out of the picture there is still some business that needs to be attended to that may require “intervention”: punishing those responsible for the Ghouta attack. At some point UN, US, and Russia should jointly intervene to whatever extent is necessary to do this job with a minimum of additional violence and a maximum of justice.

    The only hope of ending such atrocities is for the civilized world to work together to punish those that happen. Surely Nuremberg was a model for a more general approach than prosecuting Nazis.

    “time to backfoot Bibi” — now there’s a verb I’ve never heard before. I like it. (Are backfoot and tarheel the same thing?)

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