After an extraordinary effort from the United Nations, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and about a half dozen countries, including the United States and Russia, 96 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal has been destroyed, acting on a UN Security Council mandate. The remaining 4 percent of the arsenal consists of 12 production facilities that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, began destroying on Oct.1.
With much of the world’s attention now focused on the extremist group Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL) and the American-led coalition airstrikes against those terrorists in Iraq and Syria, the number of remaining chemical weapons and related chemical production facilities inside Syria are receiving little notice outside diplomatic circles. The topic of chemical weapons use by extremists was more generally debated at a meeting in Brussels on Syria this week among Europeans and Americans.
But Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, and Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator on the joint UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission to eliminate the weapons, remain concerned. “I want to stress that much more work still needs to be done,” Power told reporters at the UN in September. “We must ensure that the Syrian government destroys its remaining facilities for producing chemical weapons and without the repeated delays by the Assad regime that plagued earlier removal efforts.”
On Oct. 7, Kaag announced that Syria had failed to disclose all of its chemical weapons facilities to the UN-OPCW mission, despite the mission’s earlier and continuing reassurances to the press that Syria had fully complied. Kaag, who is Dutch, also said that three research and development facilities as well as one production plant were not previously revealed. The organization has vowed to dismantle any chemical weapons production facilities inside Syria, although it has completed its mandate, as of Sept. 30, from the Security Council to remove and destroy all 1,180 tons of declared toxic agents.
The organization said it would continue to “deal with the destruction of chemical weapon production facilities” and clarify elements of Syria’s initial declaration on its chemical weapons arsenal, even though the mission has been shut down and security and logistics for the group have been transferred to the UN Office for Project Services, based in Copenhagen.
The urgent concern among these and many other parties is whether Islamic State or other extreme Islamist groups operating in Syria, such as Al Nusra Front, will gain access to the remaining weapons and add them to their arsenals. One report from the Middle East Review of International Affairs contends that Islamic State possesses chemical weapons and used them in the beginning days of its assault on Kobani, Syria, this summer. The report contains pictures that appear to show bodies affected by mustard gas, according to Israeli experts, but the author of the report acknowledged that a further investigation was needed.
It is also possible that the Islamic State acquired the weapons from Iraq, after the group took control of a chemical weapons compound in Fallujah, according to The Associated Press. The sobering conclusion is that both Iraq and Syria, with large swathes of land controlled in the region by the Islamic State, have an unknown quantity of chemical weapons that are not secure.
American security officials said more recently that they were looking into a new report that Islamic State militants had used chlorine gas as a weapon against Iraqi police officers last month near Balad, north of Baghdad.
Chlorine has reportedly been used by forces aligned with Assad. It was not, however, included as a prohibited agent by the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty that was signed by Syria in October 2013 and provided the legal impetus for the UN-OPCW mission. According to one State Department official quoted in The Wall Street Journal, despite clear evidence of chlorine’s use it may be hard for the US to punish the Assad regime.
“It is virtually impossible to account for, eliminate and ban its [chlorine] use, because it has so many legitimate commercial uses,” said Simon Limage, a deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation. “We are faced with what is a tragic use of an industrial chemical as a chemical weapon.”
For now, European Union and US officials are focusing on the success of the joint mission to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, while acknowledging that mass slaughter still occurs on a daily basis.
Europe and the US held talks in Brussels this week regarding weapons of mass destruction not only in Syria but also in Libya, Central Asia and Ukraine. The rise of nonstate actors, such as the Islamic State, gaining control of chemical weapons was also discussed. While the deadliest weapons used by Assad’s forces have been destroyed, less toxic chemicals like chlorine remain, as it is legal for Syria to maintain an unknown quantity in its borders.
Although the use of chlorine as a weapon violates international law, it is unlikely that a concerted effort to remove it from Syria will take place, because it is not classified as a chemical weapon by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The mission to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal seems complete, despite the existence of other agents that can still be used to commit atrocities.