After the OPCW announces that half of Assad's chemical weapons cache has been removed from the country via the post of Latakia, we check in on the challenges facing the rest – including the potential easing of Russia's crucial pressure on the Syrian government.
On Thursday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the removal of Syria's chemical weapons cache, said that more than half of the country's arsenal had been removed via the port of Latakia. Thus far, 11 batches have been shipped, including all of its mustard gas. Though behind schedule, the OPCW said it hopes to remove or destroy the remainder of the weapons by June 30.
We asked Hamish de Bretton Gordon OBE, a chemical weapons expert focusing on the Syrian crisis and founder of London-based SecureBio, to weigh in on the causes of the delay and the challenges facing the OPCW and the Syrian government between now and June.
Syria Deeply: What's happened in the last week, and what are the major challenges facing the chemical weapons overseers at this time?
Hamish de Bretton Gordon: The [mustard gas] has all now left Latakia. In effect what we have are toxic chemicals that are used to mix to make chemical agents like nerve agents, like sarin.
There are two issues at the moment. The first is whether the Russians are going to withdraw any of their support and not pressure Assad to remove the chemicals, and without that support, nothing further is going to happen. The Russians are the ones forcing the government to move the chemical weapons to Latakia.
The Russian foreign ministry last week said that the Syrian chemical weapons program's mixing facilities had been destroyed. Thirty tons of mustard gas were removed in February, and what's left is 600 tons of toxic chemicals. The aim of the chemical weapons removal was to prevent them from being used again, and I think that's been achieved.
SD: What are the latest developments?
De Bretton Gordon: Over the weekend, OPCW confirmed that there are two sites that they and the Syrian government cannot get to because they are being blocked by the opposition. They've been blocked for some months. I don't see that changing any time soon. I know ISIS is certainly involved, and certainly around Latakia.
SD: How much is left in Syria?
De Bretton Gordon: With the dangerous stuff out, we have an 80 percent solution. The mechanisms to make chemical weapons have been destroyed. So now to try and eke out that last 20 percent, which is 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals, is going to drag on for many months and many civilians could die as the government tries to move these remaining chemicals to the coast. And it keeps the international focus on chemical weapons, rather than what else is going on every day.
SD: Has the mission – removing tons of weapons and transporting them from Damascus to Latakia – been as dangerous as anticipated?
De Bretton Gordon: There's been six convoys thus far. To my knowledge, every single one has been attacked [by the opposition]. The Syrian government has put massive military resources into these convoys, supporting them with tanks and air protection. They also put forces down the road before the convoys, almost blasting through to Latakia. We're three or four months behind schedule now on removal, and I think it's because the government doesn't want to put so much military effort into it because it's affecting their other operations.
It's a really intense time at the moment. Every convoy thus far has been attacked and there were five rockets fired at Latakia during loading, so there's been pretty intense fighting in and around the convoys.
SD: With its resources stretched, might the government be dragging its feet on removing the rest?
De Bretton Gordon: They can't fight the opposition when they have these chemicals to support. Latakia has been attacked by rockets a number of times, and five landed close to where they were loading [the chemicals onto a ship] last week. The opposition in various guises has been attacking the convoy, and it's taken a massive effort by the Syrian army to get everything through from Damascus to the coast by using overwhelming force. Without the Russians leaning on them, which could continue to be the case going forward as Crimea [unfolds], the government will become more reluctant.
SD: What are the issues facing the team going forward?
De Bretton Gordon: There are two issues at stake: there is a view that the government has not declared its stockpile in its entirety. Another is proliferation, which is that stockpile falling into the hands of al-Qaida and ISIS, and there's also the threat that small amounts of Syria's stockpiles have moved into neighboring countries like Iraq.