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In goal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, security conditions are big unknown

For Syria, a country at war with itself, the process of removing and destroying its dangerous arsenal comes with great and evolving challenges. Gwen Ifill talks to Sigrid Kaag of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons about the logistical, diplomatic and security complications at play.

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    Joining us now to assess the challenges that remain is Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator for ridding Syria of its chemical weapons.

    Sigrid Kaag, thank you for joining us.

    It seems to me the challenges are military, they are diplomatic, they are logistical. Let's start with the military challenge. How are you manning to get these chemical weapons out of Syria when the country is still at war with itself?

    SIGRID KAAG, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons: No, absolutely.

    I mean, the security challenge is the way I would describe it, of course, is twofold, is the conditions in country overall that hinder access for us as joint mission staff for verification and inspection, but also pose an imminent threat to the safety and security of any convoy.

    Yesterday was the first such convoy of containers from two different sites to Latakia for onward transportation, as you just described in the program. However, the situation remains very volatile. And the security is the overall responsibility of the for Syria Arab Republic. It can be a hindrance and it can pose an ongoing tremendous risk, both for the operation, as well as for ourselves as staff.


    Would a cease-fire be helpful or even possible?


    Obviously, a cease-fire is ultimately very desirable, I think also from a human perspective to have access.

    What has often happened is that, on a practical, by-arrangement basis, it is feasible that — that armed opposition groups may be advertised that a joint mission staff need to be in the area, and if obviously there could be a temporary cessation of hostilities.

    The government, on the other hand, of course, needs to do its utmost to secure both the sites at all times to avoid any of the chemical agents falling in the wrong hands, and at the same time also secure the safety and security of joint mission personnel, who come from both and the OPCW and the U.N., hence the name the joint mission.


    How many countries are we talking about involved in this?


    Oh, it's quite a huge and unique international effort.

    If you look at just the sheer donation side, in terms of logistics or other physical items that are needed for packing, loading containers, a lot of European countries, United States, Russian Federation, People's Republic of China, Denmark and Norway in terms of the vessels, but a lot of other countries have donated financing as well. And, of course, when we're looking at the destruction side that takes place, both of the U.S. vessel the Cape Ray, but also the commercial destruction of the chemical effluents, many more countries are involved.

    So, it is unique. It is also unprecedented. And, as you just highlighted, it is not without challenge.


    You mentioned a moment ago about the cooperation or the needed cooperation of the Syrian government itself. And earlier today, you described it as constructive. Can you elaborate on that?


    Yes, constructive is a term we have used from the beginning.

    The secretary-general has often referenced that as well. And it's basically a reflection of how the corporation has been going from the day the joint mission was established and the mandate was given also by the Security Council. At all levels, we work at a technical level, at a more political level, my level, looking at problems, advancing solutions, but always making sure that we from a joint mission perspective keep our eye on the ball, which is the very timely, safe and secure elimination of the chemical weapons program.

    It requires a lot of investments by the Syrian authorities, staff time. They need to secure the roots, they need to make sure the convoys do take off, packaging, and obviously readiness for onward transportation. Yesterday, in Latakia, for instance, we know — my team was there, of course. We saw that the whole area had to be secured.

    The port authorities are involved. Many, many other national staff members in Syria are also engaged in this effort. So cooperation is measured in many different ways. It's very practical, very tangible.


    When you talk about removing these weapons, first of all, what kinds of chemical weapons, what kind of munitions are we talking about, and how do you then destroy them?


    Actually, the types of weapons, I'm not privy to discuss, because actually we are bound by a confidentiality agreement.

    Syria has declared its chemical weapons program, including its arsenal, to the OPCW. And all this is governed by a confidentiality agreement. So I will speak on the generics.

    We all know from media reports that there are the worst kind, and then there are those products that if combined can do terrible and inflict horrible harm on human beings. There are, however, sort of the separate types of products. The destruction takes place in two ways. The worst possible kind of chemical agents will be taken to the U.S. vessel. It will be destroyed.

    The reactive mass that remains after destruction will be taken off the ship again and will be transported to different companies who have tendered for commercial destruction. And the second category of chemical agents which will also be transported out of country can actually head straight towards different companies who have successfully obtained the tender to basically destroy them by normal commercial route.

    And that happens a lot of the time across the world. We just don't know about it.


    We know that this is supposed to be completed, at least that was the deal, by June. Is that going to happen?


    That's the intent.

    And I think it's certainly our ambition level. And also in my briefing today with the Security Council, it was very clear that the council expressed a collective desire and wish to see this program completed in a safe and secure manner and in a timely manner.

    And all things being equal, security conditions in country, of course, being the big unknown at any given point in time, I think we have all reason to believe that the program can be continued — can be completed as planned.


    Sigrid Kaag at the U.N., thank you so much.


    Thank you.