Securing the inspectors: Legitimacy, capacity and security dimensions of disposing Syria’s chemical weapons

17 Oct

Editor’s Note:  The following is analysis on options for protection of those disposing of Syria’s chemical arsenal by Dr. David Curran.  David teaches at the University of Bradford in the UK and is a Fellow in peacekeeping at GAPW for fall 2013.  David has taken leadership on joint conferences and publications with GAPW and has offered consults with diplomats on some of the important peacekeeping issues coming up in the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly. 

The UN Security Council’s endorsement for Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s three-stage strategy for the elimination of the Syrian Governments arsenal of chemical weapons marks a small yet positive step in its handling of the crisis. It has also set a rapid time frame between the passing of UNSCR 2118[1], and the eventual elimination of all chemical stockpiles belonging to the Syrian Regime. Destroying the stockpile contains a number of risks, at several different phases in the process, from transportation to sites, securing the sites, destroying stockpiles and the process of verification of the destruction. This is difficult enough in peace-time yet alone in the midst of a civil war. Thus in the implementation of UNSCR 2118 a question arises over the possible role of military and security assets which will be used to assist the joint OPCW/UN mission. In particular, the question of ‘who’ provides such assets will be of importance to the development of the operation.

The Secretary General outlined a three phase approach to the elimination of the chemical arsenal. Phases I and II make the first steps towards the destruction of chemical weapons, through initial investigation and destruction of production and mixing and filling equipment respectively. Phase III of the plan poses the most serious challenges for the mission, particularly regarding the safety and security of the inspectors. In Phase III, (to be completed between 1 November 2013 to 30 June 2014), the joint team will be expected to ‘support, monitor and verify the destruction of a complex chemical weapons programme involving multiple sites spread over a country engulfed in violent conflict’ [2]. This process is expected to require movement by the operation (and potentially certain types of chemical agents) through ‘active confrontation lines and in some cases through territory controlled by armed groups that are hostile to the objectives of the Joint Mission’ [3].  In a situation described as ‘dangerous and volatile’, with a range of belligerent groups (some attached to formal command structures, some not), there exists a potential for serious risks to the success of the operation and, more significantly, the health and wellbeing of those in the vicinity of the destruction sites.

The assessment of the Syrian opposition from the International Crisis Group outlines the range of factions fighting against the Syrian regime as being ‘pluralistic and deeply divided, their structures improvised and shifting and their foreign backers apparently altogether less consistent and coordinated’[4]. Moreover, as Al Jazeera has reported there has been a shift in the opposition whereby thirteen of the most powerful rebel groups have withdrawn their recognition of the Syrian National Council, leaving the free Syrian Army ‘increasingly splintered’[5]. There are also significant reasons for those in opposition to be skeptical about any process which leads to ceasefire

Surrender, they are convinced, would mean merciless vengeance at the hands of a regime that, already, has shot at peaceful protestors, killed untold numbers of detained prisoners, tolerated the slaughter of women and children, bombed villages and fired ballistic missiles into densely populated neighbourhoods[6]

It is in this environment that the Joint Mission will operate. It is therefore important to look through what options for military support have been discussed.

It appears that discussion on the topic has led to two main options being espoused. Firstly, a ‘coalition of the willing’ type arrangement formed from a lead nation, and supported by others. For example, towards the end of September, the Russian government offered to provide a security force comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan troops[7]. The benefits of such a coalition would be in common operating procedures, and cultural familiarity (through joint training for example). However, such compositions may effect the legitimacy of the operation in a context such as Syria, where the conflict has become internationalized to a considerable extent[8], and a wide range of states are seen as being allied to one side or another. This is particularly true with regards to the generally hostile view held by opposition groups towards the Russian Government, a strategic partner of the Syrian Government[9].  Reflecting on this, Richard Gowan from NYU’s Centre on International Cooperation suggests that Russian personnel would be counter-productive for security

I think there is a very significant risk that rebel forces will try to disrupt this process, especially if they see significant numbers of Russian personnel involved in the destruction of chemical weapons, because for the hard-line rebels the Russians are almost certainly fair game[10]

An alternative solution would be some kind of force which would look similar to UN peacekeepers. The Secretary General’s letter to the Security Council highlights that in the process of developing a ‘viable operational concept’ there is a requirement for consultation with Member States ‘that may be in a position to contribute to the associated activities’, leading to questions of the extent to which the DPKO would be involved[11]. Involvement of a ‘type’ of peacekeeping is reflected in other areas. Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert, suggested that some kind of UN peacekeeping presence was needed as those who normally inspect weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention are not military personnel, and ‘can’t stand there with machine guns in hand and protect the weapons,’ Guthrie adds that any mission ‘would have to be done in coordination with some kind of UN peacekeeping force — which would have to be armed guards and they would have to be able to deter any attack on those locations’[12]

A UN peacekeeping-style plan may however be more difficult to attain in practice. There are reasons for this. Firstly are the technicalities of raising a UN peacekeeping force. In particular issues of mobilizing forces, logistics, equipping and the levels of training have led some in the UN to suggest a Peacekeeping plan is not feasible’ [13]. Moreover, the requirement of a functioning peace process has also been highlighted by advocates of intervention as a necessary precondition for the deployment of UN peacekeepers[14]

However, one thing that the United Nations could represent is a degree of legitimacy in being able to cross lines of conflict. This legitimacy is not by any degree watertight, but it may mean (to use Gowan’s terminology) that UN forces are not seen as ‘fair game’. The internationalized nature of the conflict could well mean that conflicting parties rely on external funding and support. Attacking a civilian-led UN operation designed to uphold international law may not be the best way in which to maintain an external funding base. One of the guiding principles of UN peacekeeping is the perceived legitimacy of its operations, as they are derived from an institution which broadly represents the will of the international community[15].

This short review of response options has opened up an important issue. On the one hand (a ‘coalition of the willing’) there exists high levels of preparedness yet possibly less legitimacy in the eyes of all parties; yet any attempt to mandate a UN peacekeeping-style operation would likely have lower preparedness but a higher chance of maintaining legitimacy. Unfortunately it appears that the nationality of the security providers will matter, possibly as much as where the highest levels of expertise can be sourced. This means that there exists a fundamental need for creative solutions to blend competence and legitimacy in the operation, something which is already evident in Ban Ki Moon’s flexible design of the operation, as well as in the recent plea from the head of the OPCW to instigate short-term localized ceasefires[16], which may facilitate the removal of weapons. Possibly a ‘golden egg’ solution can be found which is able to draw on the best expertise whilst maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of those involved in violent conflict (a different type of coalition?). This is a large step into the unknown, and the stakes are high. This fact is not lost on the Secretary General, who stated in his letter that this will be an ‘operation the likes of which, quite simply, has never been tried before’[17].

Dr. David Curran, Peacekeeping Fellow


[1] United Nations, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118 (S/Res/2118), 27 September 2013

[2] United Nations, Letter Dated 7 October 2013 from the Secretary General addressed to the President of the Security Council (S/2013/591), 7th October 2013, P6

[3] United Nations (note 2), P6

[4] International Crisis Group, Syria’s Metastasising Conflicts: Middle East Report N°14327, June 2013, P25, Found at

http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/143-syrias-metastasising-conflicts.pdf)

[5] Al Jazeera, The Future of the Free Syrian Army, 6th October 2013, Found at http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2013/10/future-free-syrian-army-2013105155250560782.html

[6] International Crisis Group, (see Note 4), P26

[7] The Guardian, Russia offers to guard sites holding Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, 26th September 2013, Found at

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/26/russia-guard-syria-chemical-weapons-sites

[8] Open Democracy, Syria, realigning the war, 10th October 2013, http://www.opendemocracy.net/paul-rogers/syria-realigning-war

[9] See: CNN, War of words between Russia, U.S. on Syrian crisis heats up, 6th September 2013, Found at, http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/05/world/russia-us-relations/index.html; The Moscow Times, Russia’s Syria Ties Boost Humanitarian Aid, Red Cross Says, 8th October 2013, Found at: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russias-syria-ties-boost-humanitarian-aid-red-cross-says/487556.html

[10] Worldpress.org, Syria: Interview with Richard Gowan, 10th October 2013, Found at http://www.worldpress.org/Mideast/3985.cfm

[11] Inner City Press, On Syria, Questions of UN Trust Fund & Plans, Ban Said to “See From One Eye”, 8th October 2013, Found at http://www.innercitypress.com/syria1baneye100813.html

[12] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Explainer: How Practical Is Russia’s Syria Chemical-Weapons Proposal?, 10th September 2013, Found at,  (http://www.rferl.org/content/syria-chemical-russia-practical/25101800.html)-

[13] The Nation, Racing the Clock, Chemical Experts Begin to Disarm Syria, 7th October 2013, Found at, http://www.thenation.com/article/176519/racing-clock-chemical-experts-begin-disarm-syria#

[14] The Guardian, MPs vote down military intervention in Syria: Politics live blog, 30th August 2013, Found at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2013/aug/29/mps-debate-syria-live-blog

[15] United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations Peacekeeping Principles and Guidelines, UN, New York, 2008

[16] See: BBC, Syria chemical weapons: OPCW plea for short ceasefires, 14th October 2013, Found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24516303; New York Times, Syrian Rebels Urged to Let Inspectors See Arms Sites, 14th October 2013, Found at

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/world/middleeast/syria.html?_r=0

[17] United Nations, (see Note 2), P6

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