Q&A: U.N. Disarmament Head ‘Confident’ on Syrian Chemical-Elimination Timing

Angela Kane, U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, addresses a plenary meeting of the international Conference on Disarmament last June in Geneva. Kane says she is optimistic that Syria will be able to meet a revised schedule for surrendering all of its chemical weapons by mid-April.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
March 11, 2014, 10:45 a.m.

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.

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