Sigrid Kaag, Special Coordinator of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme, speaks to the press following her briefing to the Security Council in closed-door consultations, November 5, 2013. (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)
Sigrid Kaag, Special Coordinator of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme, speaks to the press following her briefing to the Security Council in closed-door consultations, November 5, 2013. (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

In October, the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.” To learn more about the implications of this occasion, we speak to Simon Palamar, research assistant with CIGI’s Global Security Program.

CIGI: What is the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)?

Simon Palamar: The OPCW is a multilateral body formed in 1997. The simplest way to think about it is to understand that it’s the technical secretariat, and implements the goals, of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which is a multilateral arms control treaty that came into force in that same year. If you join the Convention, you pay dues to keep the secretariat running. It’s a very independent organization, which is important politically.

The Convention prohibits countries from producing, stockpiling and using chemical weapons. These are specifically defined in the Convention, but broadly speaking it includes choking agents such as chlorine gas, blister agents like mustard gas and, in the context of Syria, nerve agents such as sarin. The most important part of the OPCW’s work is verification, whereby it inspects decommissioned chemical weapon facilities to ensure they’re not being used to make weapons or precursors. The OPCW does other important work as well, such as assisting countries to develop defence against chemical weapons, but verification remains the key focus.

In the context of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, the most important thing the OPCW is doing is inspecting all of the facilities that the Syrian government declared as a location of chemical weapon and precursor production, to ensure what the Syrian government says on paper matches reality. Over the next year, the OPCW won’t actually be destroying chemical weapons — another party will — but it will verify, supervise and provide expertise; essentially, they will manage the process.

CIGI: How do you think OPCW will be affected by the honour of receiving the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize?

Palamar: There are a few reasons — cynical and political, as well as practical — to think that the OPCW won’t be affected by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. 

In recent years there’s been a lot of criticism that the prize has been devalued due to the transparent political reasons for the committee’s choices, and it’s hard to disagree with this argument. Many might look at the Nobel Peace Prize and say that unfortunately, the committee has sullied it. That’s not necessarily my opinion, but this discussion is out there.

US President Jimmy Carter won in 2003 — not to say that he isn’t deserving of the honour — but this was also the same year that George W. Bush invaded Iraq, and it was seen as a rebuke of American policy. In 2009, Barack Obama won the prize after being in office for eight months. Although Obama had accomplished very little by that point, the Nobel committee stated, after the fact, that Obama had done “extraordinary” work in arms control for his vision of a nuclear free world. While Obama did sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty deal with Russia, which is a very important agreement, other American presidents have perhaps done more. Ronald Reagan sat down with Mikhail Gorbachev and Richard Nixon had the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, and so forth — there is a long list of US presidents that signed arms agreements that didn't win Nobel Peace Prizes.  Many looked at Obama’s prize and said it’s simply the committee’s rebuke of George W. Bush’s policies. Indeed, some of Obama’s critics would argue that he’s undeserving given America’s drone policy.

Now we can look at the OPCW getting the prize for 2013 and its genesis in US Secretary of State John Kerry inadvertently giving the Syrian government a way out of its predicament by offhandedly suggesting that the US would avoid bombing Syria if it gave up its chemical weapons. Some might say that this is just another rebuke — this time of Obama’s preferred policy of taking military action against Syria.

The OPCW is a professional apolitical organization and they’re responsible for the difficult task of supervising and dismantling a chemical weapons program and stockpile in a war zone where no one can guarantee their safety. OPCW inspectors have already verified that the Syrian government has disabled their critical production and chemical mixing equipment, but there is still a long road ahead. The OPCW will have to supervise and verify that the Syrian chemical weapon arsenal makes it safely out of the country to Albania, Scandinavia, or wherever they settle on for their final destruction.

The OPCW also has to keep an eye out for political challenges, and make sure that those don’t derail the disarmament process. While we haven’t seen any evidence that the Syrian regime has thought about back tracking, you have to be prepared for a situation where maybe there are some people in the Syrian government who start getting cold feet and want the government to pull out of the deal. For example, the Syrian government has suggested that they would like to keep some of the factories that make the weapon precursors, and convert them into facilities to produce goods for the civilian market. The OPCW’s member states will have to decide if they want to allow Damascus to keep these sites, and the diplomatic wrangling on both sides will be difficult. There’s also a possibility that the US or another country might believe that the Syrians are cheating and hiding weapons, and in fact, we’ve already heard the Americans claim that they suspect Damascus is hiding some chemical arms.

Finally, when they’re not in Syria, they’re supervising the destruction of chemical weapons in Russia, or they’re in the US making sure that weapon destruction programs get wrapped up properly, and so forth. So in other words, the OPCW has a full schedule and plenty of challenges to tackle. The prize is an honour and maybe it will raise the OPCW’s profile, but it won’t really affect their work.

CIGI: What do you think this award says about the ongoing war in Syria?

Palamar: This is an interesting question because right off that bat you think of the political rebuke. We’ve heard spokesmen for the Free Syrian Army say that they’re a little appalled by this OPCW prize. Chemical weapons haven’t killed that many people in Syria; bullets, bombs, rockets, and knives have. The war in Syria is becoming increasingly sectarian where we’re seeing fairly credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity on both sides of the conflict.

In this regard, giving the prize to the OPCW has highlighted an unravelling of one of the predominate Arab Spring narratives. It’s really heightened some fault lines in the Western alliance and it’s exposed some of the problems that the US has had in trying to manage this conflict.

Many of us thought and hoped that the Arab Spring was going to be a wave of secular, liberal, youthful activists washing away Arab strongmen — bizarre relics of the Cold War that have somehow persisted into the twenty-first century. Instead, what we’ve been really seeing in Syria and perhaps in Libya is a brutal zero-sum competition for security and political power, and it is happening along sectarian lines.

What we saw immediately after the Ghouta gas attacks in August, which precipitated the whole series of events leading to the OPCW receiving the prize, was Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan calling not for a deal to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, but instead for strong, decisive US military action along the lines of a sustained air campaign that took place in Kosovo. In other words, he argued that we ought to punish and deter the Assad regime, which would amount to aiding Syria’s opposition forces.

Instead, what we now see through this chain of events — including the deal brokered by Russia and the US to get Syria signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention — is the staying power of the Assad regime. The diplomatic tables have turned. As Syrian Ba’ath lawmaker Fayez Sayegh has claimed, Syria is an example to other countries with chemical weapons about how you should behave. So, the Assad regime that precipitated this civil war two years ago by putting down peaceful protests by force, now proudly point to the Nobel Peace Prize to claim that they are is reliable, mature, and admirable diplomatic partner. The regime claims that this is a demonstration of its leadership in the world — after all, how often do countries get rid of chemical weapons?

Furthermore, you now have allies who are on opposite sides of the debate — Turkey and the United States. Another US ally, Saudi Arabia, has suddenly said it’s not going to take the Security Council seat it won in an election, citing reasons that the Council has become dysfunctional — it can’t make progress on Syria — and that the US left them to keep supporting the rebels while Obama brokered a deal with Russia to embolden Syria. In this regard, the chain of events has exposed severe fault lines in the Western alliance and it’s brought this huge among of credibility in the eyes of some to the government in Damascus. If you ask the Free Syrian Army, the chain of events demoralized them, while it bolsters the Assad regime’s narrative that they’re fighting terrorists and nothing else. While we can take some satisfaction that if Syria’s chemical arsenal is destroyed, it can’t be used in such an indiscriminate and callous way again, the war is still raging, and the body count is growing every day. Syrians are better off for Damascus getting rid of its chemical weapons, but doing so is not going to stop the killing, and it the Assad regime may have strengthened their diplomatic hand in the meantime. 

The chain of events has exposed severe fault lines in the Western alliance and it’s brought this huge among of credibility in the eyes of some to the government in Damascus.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.