Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Chemical arms deal not enough

Syrian opposition forces say they will not endorse the US-Russian deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, because their struggle is against the regime, not only its methods, Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

After weeks of high drama, the US and Russia found a solution to the chemical weapons problem in Syria, but not necessarily one that would satisfy ordinary Syrians.

In a deal that spared Syria the immediate prospect of a military strike, Damascus has agreed to hand over its arsenal of chemical weapons and have it dismantled. Washington and Moscow, which jointly sponsored the deal, promised that unless Damascus fully complies with the deal, it risks international intervention in keeping with Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

International reaction to the deal was mixed. Europe is mostly in favour, with France, Britain and Germany calling it a step in the right direction, but urging immediate action on the proposed plan.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the Syrian regime has a record of crimes against humanity, adding that if the use of chemical weapons were established, this would constitute a grave violation of international law.

US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both republicans, criticised the deal, saying that it would buy Bashar Al-Assad months of procrastination and continued bloodshed.

The Syrian opposition was mostly disappointed, because the deal focussed on chemical weapons rather than regime change.

The opposition was hoping for a broader ban on the regime, preventing it from using its air force and ballistic missiles in attacks on the population. Tougher action by the international community, together with the arming of the opposition, may force the regime to step down, or so the opposition argues.

Opposition members also noted that the deal only benefits the enemies of Syria, because it deprives Syria of a pressure card that strengthens its position in the conflict with Israel.

For his part, Al-Assad said that he agreed to the deal not out of fear of a military strike, but because his friends in Moscow told him to do so. While declaring its commitment to the deal, Syrian officials called it a “victory for Syria”. They stated they would submit a list of the country’s chemical weapons to the international community within days.

The deal allows the Syrian regime one week to hand over an inventory of chemical weapons ahead of the visit to Syria by international inspectors, scheduled to take place by November. The removal of chemical weapons should be take place in the next nine months. Meanwhile, international inspectors are to be allowed unhindered access to the storage sites of chemical weapons.

Fahd Al-Masri, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that the deal was “a cheap political maneouvre designed to waste time and deceive world public opinion”. He added that the deal “diverts attention from the suffering of the Syrians to an issue that is hardly related to the people’s revolution”.

Al-Masri has some reservations about the timetable for the hand-over. “The timetable itself is questionable. There is a lapse of two months between the submission of the list and the visit of the inspectors, then another seven months between the start of the dismantling and the end of the process. This allows the regime ample time to smuggle the weapons to neighbouring countries or even to its main sponsor, Russia. Besides, Bashar can reproduce more chemical weapons from fertilisers and such,” he remarked.

Major General Adnan Silo, former chief of the chemical war department in the Syrian army, shares Al-Masri’s suspicions. He said that the entire arsenal of chemical weapons in Syria shouldn’t take more than one month to dismantle. He warned that the regime keeps changing the type of chemicals it uses, employing new chemicals that are not well known and therefore hard to detect and document.

Syrian opposition members say that the regime moved a major part of its chemical weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon in the past few days. Hadi Al-Abdallah, member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, told the Weekly that “28 Russian-made Tatra trucks laden with missiles, boxes and unknown material left the Syrian coast at dawn last Thursday, heading to Hermel in Al-Biqaa Valley in Lebanon, via Al-Quseir.”

Another opposition member, Mohieddin Al-Ladhiqani, offered corroborating testimony. He said that, “the regime is smuggling its chemical weapons to Hizbullah. From 11am till 2pm every day, tank trucks of the type used to transport petroleum products leave to Osaya in Lebanon via the Damascus-Sabura-Jdeidah-Yabus Road.”

An FSA spokesman said that Damascus intends to transport large amounts of Syrian chemical weapons to Iraq under the supervision of the Quds Force and with the full knowledge of the Iraqi government.

Kamel Al-Labwani, a key figure in the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), told the Weekly that he received a report from a former chemical weapons specialist to the effect that Hizbullah received about one tonne of VX, a toxic substance capable of killing anyone within a 15-kilometre circle within minutes of exposure.

Western reports point in the same direction. The Wall Street Journal said that the elite troops involved in chemical warfare (Unit 450) moved weapons from their warehouses to dozens of locations across the country.

Preliminary reports indicate the Syrian regime owns 1,000 tonnes at least of chemical weapons, enough to fill 100 trucks. Experts say that the destruction of such an arsenal may take years, mostly because the elimination of highly poisonous substances, such as sarin, is hazardous and involves the use of technology that is not available in Syria.

Even taking a full inventory of Syria’s weapons, experts argue, may take many visits to the sites involved, a task that is complicated by the ongoing hostilities.

Taking the weapons out of Syria for dismantling is not an option.

The US and Russia are unlikely to offer to do that, and no other country has the capability of disposing of such massive amounts of hazardous chemicals. German facilities, for example, can handle up to 70 tonnes of such material per year, which means that it would take 15 years to dispose of Syria’s arsenal. And even Germany is not equipped to handle the sophisticated nerve gas that is in Syria’s possession.

The most likely solution is to establish a network of dismantling facilities in Syria with international funding, a task that would take considerable time and money.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime doesn’t need chemical weapons to maintain the current rate of slaughter. So far the regime has killed some 1,500 people with chemicals, but about 120,000 by conventional means.

Besides, Washington and Moscow have only agreed upon so far the general procedure and timetable. There is much room for disagreement on details, as happened in earlier deals, including the agreement reached in Geneva a year or so ago.

Michel Kilo, a prominent figure in the NCSROF, told the Weekly that the Syrian opposition could not endorse any deal unless the Syrian regime — and not just its chemical weapons — is placed under international monitoring.

“We have something worse than chemical weapons in this country. We have diabolic maniacs in charge of this country, which is much worse than chemical weapons. Now [the international community] wants to deprive the regime of weaponry that poses a threat to Israel, but leaves it in possession of weaponry that poses a threat to the Syrians. This is unacceptable. We want the Syrian president and his regime to be placed under international quarantine and monitoring. We cannot accept anything less. And we are not going to get involved in any political process, not in Geneva and not anywhere, unless this is done.”

Kilo added: “If the US believes that taking away the chemical weapons is enough, then allow me to say that the US is being run today by the worst political elite in the world.”

With over 100,000 dead in Syria’s internal conflict, many Syrians believe that they deserve protection, and not just from chemical attacks.

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