WASHINGTON – Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal has rightly galvanized international attention. The chemical attacks against civilians have prompted Russia and the United States to put aside diplomatic tensions to devise a plan to eliminate the Syrian regime’s stockpiles. And the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has been tasked with executing the Russian-U.S. plan, has just been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Obviously the dangers that such weapons pose do not end in Syria. In addition to the possibility of governments launching chemical attacks against their own people, there is the risk of terrorists using toxic agents, as they did in Iraq in 2007.
Indeed, for both state and nonstate actors, chemical arms are the easiest weapons of mass destruction to create, acquire, and use, owing partly to their ingredients’ widespread availability.
Many countries possess industries capable of manufacturing large quantities of such chemicals, and terrorists have proved that they, too, have the resources to produce and use dangerous chemical agents. Chemical attacks are attractive not only for their lethality, but also because they can have a major psychological impact (“shock effects”) on survivors and others.
While the chemical weapons threat has clearly not been eliminated, the OPCW has made tremendous strides in mitigating it, especially through the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons.
In some respects, the CWC has been one of the most successful nonproliferation agreements in history.
Ratified by all but a handful of countries, the CWC has maintained a commitment to consensus-based decision making, even when addressing contentious issues, and has managed to expand its training and educational programs, despite budget cuts.
More important, since it entered into force in 1997, the CWC has played a pivotal role in preventing chemical warfare in state-on-state conflicts.
It is on target to accomplish within a few years its primary goal of eliminating the massive stockpiles of chemical weapons developed during the 20th century.
But the CWC faces major challenges, including incomplete national implementation of its requirements and some signatories’ repeated failure to meet deadlines for chemical weapons destruction. States that raise proliferation concerns continue to refuse to join the CWC, and clashes over chemical-technology sharing and export controls have intensified.
There are also doubts about the effectiveness of the CWC inspection regime, especially its ability to manage a global chemical industry that is being transformed by scientific and technological breakthroughs. And disputes about the use of nonlethal chemical and incapacitating agents persist. Moreover, there is an emerging debate about the OPCW’s trajectory after the remaining declared chemical weapons stockpiles are destroyed. Most developing countries are urging the organization to allocate more resources to help them expand and modernize their domestic chemical industries.
Achieving this would require transfers of knowledge and technology from the countries with the most sophisticated chemical industries.
But developed countries want the OPCW to retain a strong security focus and are championing its evolution from an institution focused on destroying stockpiles to one capable of responding to threats of chemical weapons proliferation and use by states and nonstate actors, especially terrorist groups.
These divergent perspectives are reflected in discussions about the OPCW’s budget and mechanisms for determining where to conduct site visits.
The need for more effective defenses against chemical attacks is indisputable. OPCW efforts to strengthen such capabilities used to focus on protecting security forces from large-scale chemical attacks launched by governments; now, however, the growing threat of terrorist groups carrying out such attacks demands that training and related activities focus more on bolstering the defense capabilities of first responders.
The OPCW also faces internal challenges stemming from an increasingly constrained budget and major personnel reductions. The organization’s leaders are trying to compensate by transferring additional responsibilities to national and regional bodies that can cooperate and share costs. These entities’ capabilities remain unclear.
Given that the world economy has yet to recover fully from recent crises and that demand for expensive disarmament operations by the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat was declining until the new Syrian mission, such cuts were perhaps inevitable. But they threaten to deprive the world of some of its most experienced chemical weapons experts at a time of heightened risk of chemical weapons use.
The recurring claims of chemical attacks during Syria’s civil war have posed a particularly difficult challenge for the CWC, with member states disagreeing about which party might have been responsible and the degree to which CWC provisions apply to nonmember countries.
And now the OPCW must find, catalog and destroy the Syrian government’s massive chemical stockpiles in the midst of a vicious civil war.
The entire burden of responsibility should not fall on the OPCW. It is in the interest of CWC signatories to devote more resources to assisting any country struck by a chemical attack.
As it stands, much of the equipment that CWC signatories have pledged for victims of such attacks is reaching the end of its operational life and must be replaced.
A number of signatories have yet to indicate what, if any, assistance they would be willing to offer a country under chemical attack, or to fulfill their obligation to provide annual information about their domestic programs to defend against such attacks. The OPCW’s supplies of protective equipment could prove woefully inadequate in a major chemical incident.
The Nobel Committee’s decision to honor the OPCW’s critical role in promoting world peace — and the devastating chemical attacks in Syria — should compel world leaders to increase their support for the Organization and the CWC. The potential consequences of inaction could not be more apparent — or more horrifying.
Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. © 2013 Project Syndicate