Syria: Wrong way in, long way out, but who cares?

This is a cross post from the ISIS Europe blog at


Occasional Paper 

6 January 2013 

Syria: Wrong way in, long way out. But who cares? 

by Dr. David Chuter, Chair of the Governing Board of ISIS Europe 

As predicted in ISIS Europe’s last Occasional Paper on Syria (“The Syrian Crisis and Chemical Weapons: Wrong way in, which way out?”, ISIS Europe, September 2013) disposing of Syrian Chemical Weapons is going to take rather longer and be much more difficult than was admitted at the time the destruction agreement was concluded. And, also as predicted, nobody seems to care very much. Why is this?

It was not unexpected when the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced on 28 December that the deadline of 31 December for the removal of the “most critical” chemicals from Syrian soil was “unlikely to be met”. And indeed it has not been met. The 50 Russian-made trucks and 25 armoured vehicles intended to transport some 500 tonnes of chemicals were airlifted to Latakia, the Syrian port from which they are to leave the country, just before Christmas, but it is not clear whether they have even reached the 12 sites the regime have identified for the collection of the chemicals, or for that matter if they have even left Latakia. Danish and Norwegian ships were sent to collect the chemicals, but turned back before the New Year. They set off to try again on Friday 3rd January but the latest information is that they are still in international waters.

This is not really a surprise, and must be pretty much what the experts in western capitals expected would happen. For good political reasons, the easy stuff was done first, in order to provide the necessary impression of success and momentum. Even there, however, the Syrians only met the 1 November 2013 deadline for the “destruction” of production and mixing/filling facilities, because OPCW changed the rules slightly, so that it was enough for the Syrians to render these equipments “inoperable”. Things will get steadily more difficult from now on.

The obvious problem is the transporting of dangerous chemical substances over considerable distances, through areas where the Assad regime’s control is not assured, and thence from Damascus to Latakia. Whilst the Danes, Norwegians, Russians and Chinese are providing naval escorts and security in the port, no-one has yet stepped forward to provide security for the vehicles themselves. So how long this is going to take, what degree of confusion and even havoc we can expect, and whether the 30 March deadline for the destruction of these chemicals will itself be met, are all impossible to say at the moment.

The risk is not necessarily one of a direct attack on the convoys, although with so many different armed groups on the ground almost anything is possible. But many of these 2


groups may actually have no idea that the operation is even taking place, let alone that an impressive-looking and probably heavily guarded convoy they see passing by is actually carrying deadly chemicals. The OPCW site seems to have little information in Arabic about the operation, and it’s not clear whether fighters on the ground have access to accurate information from the Arab media, or would necessarily believe what they were told if they had. And the regime itself may decide to create further complications with a staged incident of some kind. As always, though, the greatest risk is simply that someone will do something stupid, without necessarily realising it.

Yet the international reaction to the OPCW announcement has been exceptionally muted, even taking into account the time of year. Whilst much of the responsibility for the delay lies with others, it is true that, technically, Syria is in breach of the agreement made with the OPCW, and with major world powers in general. So why are blood-curdling threats not being issued from Washington? Why are aircraft even now not being made ready to bomb declared chemical weapon sites? There are really two reasons.

First, nobody cares any more. As explained in the last Occasional Paper, chemical weapon destruction was never more than a mechanism by which it was agreed that the West would step back from its threats of war, without seeming to give way. Chemical weapons were never really a major factor in the conflict itself, and the latest UN report even adds to the confusion about who actually fired the notorious 21 August missiles and where from. (One of the two missiles, when examined, apparently showed no traces of Sarin). Although western governments still claim that the Assad regime was behind the attacks (and they could well be right) they are also making it clear that they have no plans to do anything about it. The problem of Syrian chemical weapons, inasmuch as it really exists, will be resolved by the destruction process, and that’s it.

Second, it’s not just that enthusiasm for a war with Syria has dribbled away to practically zero. It’s also because the West now realises that Assad is unlikely to fall any time soon, and that the longer the war goes on the more likely it is that Syria will implode disastrously, and effective control of whole regions of the country could pass into the hands not only of groups like Hezbollah (which appears to be fighting as well as one would expect) but also the new Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is “linked” as the media likes to say, to Al-Qaida, and also seems to be performing well. And the West also has one nervous eye on Lebanon, which is getting caught up in the struggle by proxy.

Therefore the war needs to be brought to an end soon. Therefore the West is backing off its earlier insistence that Assad should go before there could be meaningful talks. Therefore nobody is going to let a little thing like chemical weapon destruction deadlines get in the way.

As it has been from the start, this is an initiative that is condemned to succeed politically, whatever the practical difficulties – which may be even greater than was originally feared.


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