Syria and its chemical weapons

The destruction of Syria's chemical weapons got under way this week. In a letter to the Security Council, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon reported:

"Under the supervision of OPCW experts, supported by the United Nations, the Syrian Arab Republic began to destroy its chemical weapons. Syrian personnel used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of materials, including missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment."

This first stage of the process is basically about making Syria's chemical weapons unusable before moving on to destroying the chemicals themselves. A note on the OPCW's website refers to the destruction of "certain Category 3 chemical weapons". Category 3 includes "unfilled munitions, devices and equipment designed specifically to employ chemical weapons".

So far, though, no detail has been released about what these Category 3 weapons were and it's not at all certain that we shall ever be allowed to find out.

Although the task of the OPCW is merely to ensure Syrian compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, knowing exactly what "unfilled munitions, devices and equipment" have been destroyed would cast some useful new light on who was responsible for the chemical attacks near Damascus last August.

Last month's report from UN inspectors implicated two types of munition in the August attacks. One was a type of rocket which seems to be unique to the Syrian conflict and which blogger Brown Moses has dubbed the UMLACA ("Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks") and the other was a 140mm rocket thought to be a Soviet-made M14.

Since the Assad regime and Russia both deny that Syrian government forces were responsible for the August attacks, it's relevant to ask whether either type of munition has been declared to the OPCW as part of the government's stockpile.

If the answer is yes, it will be extremely difficult for anyone to continue blaming rebel fighters for the attacks. A negative answer, on the other hand, (assuming Syria has made a full declaration) would exonerate the regime.

Either way, it shouldn't be difficult to provide an answer – except that the OPCW may not be allowed to say. This is because the Chemical Weapons Convention includes an annexe on confidentiality which imposes strict rules on what may or may not be disclosed.

Among other things, it says:

Information shall be considered confidential if:

(i) It is so designated by the State Party from which the information was obtained and to which the information refers; or

(ii) In the judgement of the Director-General, its unauthorised disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the State Party to which it refers or to the mechanisms for implementation of this Convention

However, it also goes on to say:

Any information may be released with the express consent of the State Party to which the information refers.

So it appears from that the information could be made public if the Syrian government agreed. And if the Syrian government really had no part in the chemical attacks last August, why not seize this opportunity to prove it?
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 12 October 2013