The first reports emerging from the effort to relieve the Assad regime of its chemical weapons capacity suggest that the regime is cooperating with the inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The latter organization has been tasked by the United Nations with overseeing the process of destroying Assad’s CW capability.
The process is set to involve two distinct stages. In the first and more straightforward phase, Syria’s ability to produce chemical weapons will be removed. In the second phase, Syria’s actual stockpiles of chemical weaponry are to be destroyed. The first phase of the mission is intended to be completed by November 1. The second phase is likely to take a lot longer.
The OPCW inspectors face a task of unparalleled complexity. Never before has a country in the midst of civil war offered up its chemical weapons capacity to international review and destruction. It is not at all clear that the inspectors will succeed. The sincerity of the Assad regime in facilitating this process remains deeply open to question, and the logistical challenges are also enormous.
Regarding the regime’s sincerity: on the one hand, the regime ought to have every interest in proving cooperative with the inspectors. The agreement whereby Syria agrees to give up its CW with one stroke transformed Assad from the potential target of Western military action to a key partner in an internationally mandated process. The agreement effectively ended any possibility of Western military intervention in the Syrian civil war. For as long as the process of verification and destruction of Syrian CW continues, it is vital that the regime survive. And this process could continue for more than a year.
However, there are two complicating elements. First, allegations have arisen that the regime is attempting to remove parts of its CW capability across the border to Lebanon — where its Hezbollah allies hold sway — and to Iraq.
A former senior officer handling chemical weapons in Assad’s army, Brigadier-General Zaher Shakat, told the British Sunday Telegraph newspaper that he possesses intelligence confirming that at least one convoy of 20 vehicles carrying CW materials has crossed the border between Syria and Lebanon, transferring the material to Hezbollah.
Israeli sources, at this stage, dismiss these reports, suggesting that they form part of Syrian rebel propaganda efforts. At the same time, the possibility that the regime may at a certain stage attempt to remove CW in the direction of Lebanon or Iraq is not ruled out by Israeli officials. In particular, as autumn turns to winter and cloudy skies reduce visibility, the possibility of such actions increases. For Israel, clear evidence of the transfer of CW to Hezbollah would constitute a “red line” likely to produce a military response of the kind already witnessed four times in the course of the last year.
The second problem regarding Syria’s CW capability is a logistical one. Once concentrated in a small number of sites, Syria’s CW capacity is now spread between 50 to 70 separate locations. The movement of material took place when a U.S. strike on Syria seemed imminent, and was carried out by Unit 450 of the Syrian army — the main command and control center for the Syrian CW program.