A senior U.N. disarmament official says Syria likely will meet a mid-April timeline for surrendering all its chemical arms, barring any surprises.
Angela Kane, the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, said Damascus should be able to comply with a recently revised timeline of April 13 for transporting the bulk of its chemical warfare materials to the coastal city of Latakia for shipment out of the country by foreign vessels.
"Now that we have a new timeline, [we're] more confident that this will actually happen," Kane said in a late February interview.
She said the international media has given insufficient attention to the instances in which Damascus has met particular deadlines, such as the Nov. 1 disablement of its chemical-production and -mixing facilities.
Syria's ability -- or willingness -- to comply with the latest timeline is in doubt in some Western quarters, given that the Bashar Assad regime has already lapsed beyond several objective schedules, and appears on track to miss another deadline later this week.
Syria failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for transporting its most deadly chemicals to Latakia and a Feb. 5 deadline for surrendering the rest of its toxic warfare materials. The Assad regime also appears unlikely to meet a March 15 deadline for fully demolishing a dozen chemical-arms production sites in the Arab nation.
The Syrian regime has blamed opposition forces for causing the shipment delays by threatening attacks on their transport across the country to the port city. At this point, approximately 35 percent of Syria's stockpile of 1,300 metric tons of chemical warfare materials is estimated to have been surrendered.
Kane questioned the credibility of Syrian government reports of rebels threatening the chemical transports. If there were a credible attack on a convoy, she said, the Syrian government would have notified the international authorities administering the disarmament plan. That blueprint calls for all of Syria's chemical weapons to be disposed of by mid-2014.
"We have not been aware of any attacks on the transports," the German diplomat said.
Damascus agreed to give up its sizable chemical stockpile after the United States threatened punitive military strikes as punishment for a large sarin gas strike in August. In excess of 1,400 people are estimated to have been killed in the attack on a suburb of the Syrian capital, though Assad's regime has denied responsibility.
During a break from participating in a recent nuclear disarmament event in Washington, Kane sat down with Global Security Newswire to discuss her thoughts on Syrian chemical disarmament and other matters.
Edited excerpts of the Feb. 26 interview follow:
GSN: Russia has claimed that Syrian opposition groups have carried out attacks on chemical transports. To what extent have direct attacks slowed the pace of bringing these chemical materials to the port of Latakia for removal?
Kane: We have not been aware of any attacks on the transports. Basically, as you know, the Syrian government is responsible for their own security in terms of the transports. But what happens is that the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], accompanied by the U.N., verifies whatever arrives, whatever leaves the warehouses and then whatever arrives at Latakia airport.
There has been some talk about that -- it could have happened, maybe there were attempted attacks. I really don't know. But on the other hand, I think if there would have been an attack with major consequences or even with minor consequences, I think the Syrian government would have informed us.
GSN: What is your confidence level that Syria will meet this latest timetable of mid-April for sending all of its chemical weapons to the coast for pickup?
Kane: When the timetable was originally established, we all sort of said it's very ambitious. … And Syria's response to this was that they gave the international community a list of items. … This was like armored vehicles, armored trucks, forklifts and a number of other items that they said they did not have but were necessary, particularly because of the security situation. ... That was partially delivered, but not in full, and that brought about some delay.
Now that Syria has come forward with a precise plan as to the timing of how these transports could happen, I am confident that they will stick to this timetable.
Yes, you are right [they] did not stick to the 31 December and 5 February timeline, but on the other hand … they have complied with other timelines and we shouldn't forget that they have complied with the destruction facilities; they have complied with the destruction of the isopropanol [the only chemical-weapons ingredient that Damascus is allowed to destroy on its own].
So there have been other measures that have been underplayed, if I can say that, in the press. But yes, we were concerned. But now that we have a new timeline, [we're] more confident that this will actually happen in accordance with the timeline that was put forward.
GSN: Where could further schedule slippage occur with this latest timeline?
Kane: [I don't think] anyone has a firm answer. … I think that the first step is, of course, the delivery of the materials to the port of Latakia. Then there's transshipment onto the Danish and Norwegian ships. Then there's going to be another transshipment onto the [MV] Cape Ray, which is the [U.S.] ship which actually takes care of the destruction of the materials.
How that slippage comes, I really don't know. Let's just assume there could be very rough seas. ... And maybe they would not want to be in the open waters but they would like to be more to the coast; they would have to wait a couple of days.
This is unpredictable, just like it was unpredictable, which Syria claimed also delayed their initial transport … that you had snow in the area. It's very rare for Syria to have snow, which worsened the road conditions. On the other hand, there could also be, maybe, some slippage in terms of destruction on the Cape Ray.
Right now, what is foreseen is that it is all going according to a certain set schedule. … I think that we are confident and hopeful that [we'll] actually stick to the time that's been agreed to now. But if it's a weather issue or something else, it's impossible to foresee at this point.
GSN: How do you see this April timeline affecting the existing June deadline for the destruction of all Syrian chemical materials?
Kane: I know that there has been a schedule established as to the destruction on the Cape Ray. I don't know all of the particulars. … The [U.S. crew] can do a certain quantity every day and that can be continuous. And then of course what happens after that quantity of chemical materials has been destroyed, you have to offload the industrial waste that comes off it.
So depending on the amount of industrial waste -- and I believe it's quite large -- that needs to be offloaded and then processed at industrial waste facilities that have been contracted by the OPCW for further destruction. … So it all depends on how that is proceeding. …
I think the next step is to be able to precisely determine when exactly is the full destruction -- the 100 percent destruction -- of the material is going to be done? Is it going to be by 30 June? We need to hear from the partners who actually do the destruction in order to determine that.
GSN: Do you feel the public -- particularly communities in Italy and Cyprus where Syrian chemical materials will be passing through or temporarily located at port -- have been adequately informed about the details of the destruction plan?
Kane: I can't answer that question. All I can tell you is that from our side, from the U.N. side, we have been talking and have had studies also by the United Nations Environment Programme and also the World Health Organization just in case there is any accident or anything that occurs. …
It is something that can be dangerous simply because of a spill. If it is done under controlled conditions, which chemical weapons destruction always is, barring any unforeseen incident, there should not be any environmental damage.
GSN: Has Syria's agreement to give up its chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention produced any forward momentum in convincing the remaining treaty-holdout nations to ratify the accord?
Kane: Unfortunately, there is no indication of that. As you know, there are currently six member states that are still outside the Chemical Weapons Convention. Two of them have signed but not ratified. And four of [the others] have never signed the treaty.
I think there are two states -- there are very strong discussions with those two states and that's primarily Angola and South Sudan. South Sudan being very new, a very young country, I think they have a lot more pressing issues right now than to think about signing and ratifying a Chemical Weapons Convention, even though that is of course very desirable that it is universal. And Angola has been very strongly pressed also by the African Union to do it.
Egypt and North Korea are the ones that are totally out of it, meaning they have neither signed nor ratified.
Egypt of course is very strongly involved in the weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East and the negotiations. And it is their assumption that if this zone gets established -- and as it is being discussed right now with difficulties but it is moving forward -- I think then we can look forward to having one more member, i.e. Egypt, as a full accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
North Korea I cannot comment on. Myanmar and Israel have signed but have not ratified.
GSN: What is your current outlook for when a next major step might take place toward holding a major conference in Helsinki to discuss prospects for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East?
Kane: The facilitator, Mr. [Jaakko] Laajava of Finland, has been very active as have the three conveners [Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States] and the United Nations to try to bring this about. We've had several meetings already. ...
We are anticipating having another meeting to prepare for this conference and to set dates within a month's time. The facilitators right now are ascertaining when exactly it can be. The international agenda is always very full. I'm hoping that we will in fact have this conference take place this year in Helsinki but it is not an easy subject. ...
It is a region with a lot of historical longstanding difficulties and this is just one other issue that should be addressed, but it cannot be addressed purely in isolation. ... Syria, having acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, really eliminates already one country from needing to accede to it.
So, in essence, what we are talking about is: Egypt, [joining the] Chemical Weapons Convention, and Israel, [joining the] NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty].
GSN: Do you see the Conference on Disarmament agreeing to a work plan this year for moving toward a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and other arms-control objectives?
Kane: I'm always hopeful. I think that when you work at the United Nations, you always have to be an optimist.
So I think it is very difficult. There is some opposition to this proposal, to the proposals that have been put forward. I'm following it with great interest and I hope that the Conference on Disarmament after so many years of non-activity will finally agree at least on a work plan so we can move along.
GSN: What is your view of the initiative discussed at the recent humanitarian conference in Nayarit, Mexico, on establishing a deadline for starting negotiations for a formal nuclear-weapons ban?
Kane: I think deadlines are not always a good idea. And I'll tell you why. I think that once they slip -- and particularly with a contentious issue like this -- it can slip and then you lose faith in the whole process.
So I think it is very good to keep up the pressure. I'm all in favor of keeping up the pressure. But if you set a definitive deadline, then you're in danger of losing that deadline and then the whole aspect becomes a bit [puzzled].
And so I would say keep up the pressure. I think that what happened in Nayarit was very powerful. Yes, it was regrettable that the P-5 [nuclear-armed nations of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States] were not there. But on the other hand, we will have another follow-on [meeting hosted] by Austria later this year. …
But you also have to put forward a plan at some point. You can talk about humanitarian consequences but we've had two meetings on that now and I think the next one really has to be more concrete in terms of: How do we get there? How do we get to a ban or how do we get to a convention? How do we move this forward?
And so the fact that 21 more member states actually came to Nayarit than came to Oslo [for an initial such conference in 2013], I think that's already a very powerful signal to the P-5 that something really needs to happen.
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.