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On Syria: “There are a lot, a lot, a lot of details that still have to be sorted through”

September 19, 2013

The United States and Russia, without any participation from Syria, have agreed to a framework purporting to lead to the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program. The agreement is essentially a proposal for a decision to be adopted by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council, which would then be put into effect by a U.N. Security Council Resolution. It is a decision requiring Syria to comprehensively declare within one week its entire chemical weapons program, to be verified by on-site inspections, aiming toward the complete elimination of Syrian chemical weapons materials and equipment in the first half of 2014.

Agreement Framework

Syria has reportedly agreed to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which established the OPCW to administer the Convention. When a state joins the CWC, it makes a declaration of all aspects of its chemical weapons program, such as storage sites and production and research facilities. As applied to a newly joining member such as Syria, the CWC requires the destruction of chemical weapons and production facilities “as soon as possible,” with procedures to verify this to be “determined by the [OPCW] Executive Council.” When the Congressional Research Service last wrote on the CWC, it said: “The most serious question is whether the OPCW will be able to detect all clandestine production or stockpiling of chemical weapons. Ironically, the CWC’s supporters and detractors generally agree: the answer is no.”

This agreement contains three main aspects: 1) a framework document outlining a commitment between the United States and Russia to ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program; 2) a document outlining an agreement of principles between the United States and Russia forming the basis for a decision to be issued by the OPCW Executive Council (Annex A); and 3) a framework for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons (Annex B). In shorthand, the two annexes are the decision document and the destruction document.

Annex A outlines a series of principles forming the basis of an OPCW Executive Council decision regarding Syria. The United States and Russia agreed “to work together towards prompt adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution that reinforces the decision of the OPCW Executive Council.”

The main elements of these principles comprising the decision are as follows:

  • Syria is to destroy its chemical weapons program, including all chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities.
  • The framework document outlines that Syria is expected to submit its initial declaration “within a week.” It is to be a “comprehensive listing” of Syria’s chemical weapons program. As one State Department official said, this declaration would provide “a first indication of the sincerity and seriousness of purpose here.”
  • Following this initial declaration, Annex A outlines a schedule “for the rapid destruction of Syrian chemical weapons capabilities,” including:
    • Completion of initial on-site inspections of declared sites by November.
    • Destruction of production and mixing/filling equipment by November.
    • Complete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014. Of note, a State Department official admitted that the dates outlined are “not a schedule, it is not a deadline. They are targets, goals, timeframes.”
  • Annex A calls for stringent verification measures, “beginning within a few days,” including a mechanism to ensure the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites.
  • Cases of non-compliance shall be brought to the attention of the Security Council.
    • Secretary of State Kerry said the United States and Russia agreed “to impose measures under Chapter 7 within the U.N. Security Council” in the event of noncompliance. Chapter 7 is the part of the U.N. Charter under which the Security Council issues more coercive measures to ensure compliance with its decisions—from diplomatic reprimand to economic sanctions and the use of force.
    • The Russian Foreign Minister said at his joint appearance with Secretary Kerry, “there is nothing said about the use of force, not about any automatic sanctions.” Rather, further deliberations would be required at the Security Council about the consequences of Syrian non-compliance.

According to the framework document, the United States and Russia are committed to “the immediate international control over chemical weapons and their components in Syria.” It is then to be decided how and where they are to be destroyed. Annex B goes on to develop some details and timeframes for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. As one State Department official said, “we require further discussions within our governments and between the two governments ... on whether or not all stocks will be destroyed in-country or out-of-country.”


First and foremost, this is being implemented in what is described diplomatically as a “non-permissive environment.” It would be described more accurately as a war zone, meaning the monitors and implementers are constantly at risk, and security needs to be provided for them.

From there, it is the U.N. Security Council that is to draft the initial resolution governing the implementation of this agreement. Any violations are to be referred back to the Security Council. Russia, of course, possesses a veto in the Security Council, and has not been afraid to use it to protect Syria, having vetoed at least three Security Council Resolutions pertaining to Syria. Moreover, Russia still maintains it was opposition forces in Syria that actually used the chemical weapons there on August 21.

Furthermore, in terms of the initial declaration Syria is to make about its chemical weapons program, the State Department assesses that Russia has not made a complete declaration itself of its chemical weapons programs, as it was required to under the CWC.

The Obama Administration seems to say this diplomatic agreement provides the same deterrence to future use of chemical weapons that military action provides. It argues this agreement “sends a very powerful message to countries around the world that international norms against weapons of mass destruction are going to be upheld by the international community and that people will face consequences for their use—in this case, the most serious consequence, which is that they will be eliminated. The regime will no longer have control over them, and they will be destroyed and eliminated.”

This agreement does nothing to address the underlying conflict in Syria, which has caused untold death, displacement, and misery there. As Secretary Kerry said after completion of this agreement:

Our focus now must remain on ending the violence, ending the indiscriminate killing, ending the creation of more and more refugees that is not only tearing Syria apart, but threatens the region itself. As President Obama has said, and I have said many times, there is no military solution to this conflict. ... So our overall objective is to find a political solution through diplomacy, and that needs to happen at the negotiating table, and we will stay engaged with a sense of urgency. And I say to the Syrian opposition and all those in Syria who recognize that just removing the chemical weapons doesn’t do the job, we understand that, and that is not all we are going to seek to do. But it is one step forward, and it eliminates that weapon from the arsenal of a man who has proven willing to do anything to his own people to hold onto power.

Setting all of this aside, there are still many outstanding questions about how this framework agreement actually would be implemented in practice. As a State Department official said on background, there remain “a lot, a lot, a lot of details that still have to be sorted through.