10 Years of the Syria Chemical Weapons Challenge

In August 2013, the Syrian government used sarin to attack the Ghouta neighborhood of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people, including women and children. The horrific impact of the attack was viewed all over the world and shortly thereafter Syria agreed in September 2013 to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). By the end of the following year, Syria’s declared chemical weapons program had been dismantled. Despite this, more than ten years later, Syria’s compliance with the CWC is marred by continued questions on compliance, as incident after incident have emerged of continued use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

Despite Assad’s ongoing obstruction and noncompliance with the CWC, ten years ago, the world came together in unique and unprecedented ways to eliminate Syria’s most dangerous and strategic chemical weapons stockpile to make the world safer. Within the U.S. government, unique, game-changing action and coordination resulted in options for addressing the challenge. Globally, extraordinary diplomatic efforts led to monumental feats of international cooperation. Technical creativity and innovation allowed the international community to navigate hurdles again and again, as was the case for treaty compliance efforts faced with unprecedented legal questions. 

As we enter a period of 10 years past many major events related to the Syria chemical weapons challenge, this post captures some of the historical activities spanning mid-2012 to the end of 2014. We hope this shows how multifaceted efforts to stop weapons of mass destruction threats can be, and how successful multilateral cooperation can be, even with unlikely participants during challenging times. We also aim to emphasize the brutality and unacceptability of chemical weapons. A timeline of key events is interspersed in the text below, following this color coding:   

Note: The Assad Regime allegedly used chemical weapons about 130 times from 2012-2014. However, due to the often small-scale use and the difficulty of investigating reports, there is not a clear, confirmed record of all instances. As such, the weapon use events in this timeline reflect those confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) or the United Nations (UN), and a few additional, significant attacks that are widely recognized. 

July 23, 2012

Syrian government officials threaten deployment of chemical weapons against any foreign intervention, providing the most direct confirmation yet that Syria possesses a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.

During the earliest years of the civil war in Syria, I was working in the Pentagon on addressing weapons of mass destruction issues. As it became public later, Syria had a significant stockpile containing some of the world’s most dangerous chemical weapons, including DF (a sarin precursor) and sulfur mustard agent. Every day, I and many others reported to work with this as one of the top threats on our mind. So we started thinking about ways to tackle the challenge, often by thinking through wide-ranging scenarios related to the Syrian civil war, the government’s control of territory (or lack thereof), the fate of the Assad regime, and other factors. With brainstorming from a range of brilliant colleagues, it became clearer over time that in many scenarios, there were things that could be done to secure or even eliminate the threats stemming from these weapons—if the political will and tools were available. 

August 7, 2012

Senator Richard Lugar visits Russia and urges U.S.-Russia collaboration toward the goal of ending Syria’s chemical weapons programs.

Some of the contingencies for addressing the Syria chemical weapons challenge would inevitably involve Russia, given its close working ties in Damascus. So in August 2012, during a trip to Russia, former Senator Richard Lugar recommended that the U.S. and Russia work together on a path to destroying Syria’s chemical weapons program. This coincided with Russia pulling out of further work with the United States via the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and the suggestion was initially met with an icy response.

December 3, 2012

President Barack Obama publicly iterates a “red line” to discourage potentially imminent chemical weapons uses, saying that there will be consequences for the use of chemical weapons.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction symposium (White House / Sonya N. Hebert)

The Assad regime’s threats to use chemical weapons heated up as the civil war raged and it lost control of territory. Our worries of a strategic-level attack (potentially to include Israel, Jordan, or other neighboring nations), among other concerns, ratcheted up accordingly. I was in the audience when then President Barack Obama spoke at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program on December 3, 2012, in which he announced a so-called red line to help halt potential imminent attacks: “I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable.” 

Similar messages had been previously conveyed, mostly out of the public spotlight. As Ben Rhodes later wrote, the warnings seemed to work for a short time. Yet as long as chemical weapons materials capable of inflicting mass casualties remained in Assad’s possession, horrific outcomes could occur at any time.

December 23, 2012

The first alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is reported in Homs, Syria, reportedly killing seven people.

January 2013

Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter establishes a Senior Integration Group (“SIG”) of senior officials from the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the National Security Council. The group’s goal is to improve DoD’s preparedness for a variety of chemical weapons elimination scenarios.

March 19, 2013

Rockets carrying sarin are launched into Khan al-Assal (a neighborhood of Aleppo), killing 25 people and injuring 110. The agent was most likely sarin, though the United Nations was not able to validate this.  Evidence collected by the UN indicates this attack took place, but due to lack of environmental samples a firm conclusion could not be made.

March 21, 2013

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announces a joint effort with the OPCW and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons that occurred on March 19.

April 29, 2013

Canisters containing sarin are allegedly dropped by helicopters over Saraqeb, Syria. Several people are sickened and one eventually dies. Evidence collected by the UN indicates this attack took place, but due to lack of environmental samples a firm conclusion could not be made.

Indeed, though the intelligence community was cautious in its assessments, it wasn’t long before Assad pursued the use of deadly chemicals in his country’s civil war. For those of us within the Department of Defense, as I described in a 2016 Nonproliferation Review article, in early 2013 “Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter established a Senior Integration Group (which we called “the SIG”) composed of senior defense leaders and officials from the Department of State and the National Security Council staff. The group met bi-weekly for months to improve DOD’s preparedness for a range of Syrian chemical-weapons elimination scenarios.” As we worked via the SIG and among our expert teams to develop options, Assad carried out more chemical weapon attacks within Syria. 

Within the Department, a team of incredibly talented technical experts turned some ideas they’d been developing into reality—to be ready, hopefully, if and when various scenarios came to pass to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons materials (which were mostly in the form of bulk liquids at that time, with a smaller amount in filled munitions or other forms). One promising option – if we could get the chemical weapon materials in a place where they could be safely neutralized – was the first Field-Deployable Hydrolysis System that was newly developed and tailored to the Syria case. It was ready to go by July 1, 2013. 

July 1, 2013

The first unit of the Field-Deployable Hydrolysis System that was tailored to the Syria case is complete and ready for use.

A man speaks in front of a FDHS unit (ECBC Communications)

As my former colleague Philipp Bleek wrote alongside Nicholas J. Kramer in the aforementioned Nonproliferation Review volume, a related diplomatic thread was running alongside this technical work. After the Lugar visit to Moscow, the U.S. national security advisor and her Russian counterpart started a new process by which “the two governments initiated a regular dialogue to try to flesh out a shared vision of key tasks in a possible destruction effort ‘if asked’ by the Syrian government.” Over time, these technical exchanges became a vital communications channel; even then, bilateral relations were already fraying and were in many ways fraught, which only increased the importance of finding common ground. 

Throughout the process, officials and technical experts at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) worked tirelessly. They conducted investigations of potential uses of chemical weapons, which meant deploying experts into Syria during its ongoing civil war. At the same time, then OPCW Director General, Ahmet Üzümcü, and his team facilitated diplomatic discussions and urged cooperation among nation-states despite all the complications involved.

August 21, 2013

The Assad Regime launches rockets carrying sarin into Ghouta, a district of Damascus. The attack kills more than 1,400 people and injures thousands more.

August 24, 2013

An attack using sarin is allegedly carried out on soldiers in Jobar, Syria. The UN assesses the attack as probable, but lacks the primary evidence to fully confirm it.

August 25, 2013

Soldiers in Ashrafiah Sahnaya suffer an alleged chemical weapons attack. The UN assesses the attack as probable but is not able to fully confirm due to lack of primary information.

Within Syria, conditions for its people continued to deteriorate in myriad ways, including widespread hunger, displacement of millions of people, and torture. In an astonishing act against the international laws and humanitarian principles that most of the world abides by, on August 21, 2013, the Assad regime launched rockets filled with sarin in an attack on the Ghouta area of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 and inflicting thousands more.

The neighborhood of Eastern Ghouta as seen in February 2013

Speaking only for myself, back in the Pentagon, I felt that the end of the Assad regime was necessary. Still, I knew the vast, entangled issues at play, at the forefront being the need to reduce the imminent potential for even more horrific suffering of the Syrian population, and possibly those in the neighboring region.

August 30, 2013

The White House releases a U.S. Government Assessment which reports with “high confidence” that the Syrian government used a nerve agent on opposition groups in Ghouta on August 21. Secretary Kerry also says that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons multiple other times in the past year.

September 14, 2013

A U.S.-Russia agreement is announced, jointly calling on Syria to declare and end its chemical weapons program.

September 27, 2013

The OPCW passes the decision “Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” setting an ambitious timeline of declaring and eliminating “all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.”

September 27, 2013

The UN Security Council unanimously endorses the prompt destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and calls for the full implementation of the OPCW decision.

October 14, 2013

Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention enters into force.

October 16, 2013

The OPCW-UN Joint Mission is formally established to oversee the speedy elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

An advance team of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arriving in Damascus, Syria (UN / Hend Abdel Ghany)

The small glimmer of hope emerging was that we continued moving forward with technical options and conducted exchanges with multiple parties to assess what might work. Strong cooperation across the White House and Departments of State and Defense kept things moving. This work culminated in a U.S.-Russia agreement announced on September 14, 2013, jointly calling on Syria to declare and destroy its chemical weapons program. Syria immediately acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force on October 14, 2013. The international legal machinery worked quickly in the meantime. A UN resolution to enshrine the agreement passed on September 27. The same day the OPCW Executive Council passed an extraordinary decision, “Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” setting a timeline unprecedented in speed for declaring and eliminating “all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.” By the end of the year, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of this work.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü addresses the media on the organisation’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize (OPCW)

October 23, 2013

Syria submits initial chemical weapons declaration.

October 31, 2013

The OPCW confirms that Syria has destroyed or rendered inoperable all of its declared chemical weapons facilities within the country. The OPCW inspects 21 out of 23 declared sites; the other two were inaccessible due to security concerns.

November 2013

Albania, which had planned to host the neutralization of Syria’s chemical weapons, is deemed to be an infeasible option due to growing protests. The backup plan of neutralization on a ship in international waters is adopted.

Based on many factors, including the raging civil war and the fact that most chemical materials were in bulk liquid containers that could possibly be moved—though they totalled about 1,300 metric tons—many nations pushed for Syria to send away as much as possible to be verifiably destroyed elsewhere. It was critical to minimize the amount of time that inspectors had to be in the country to confirm that Syria’s chemical weapon production facilities, equipment, and other components were destroyed. A small group of us traveled to various nations aiming to find a place to bring in whatever could be removed for safe destruction with the Field-Deployable Hydrolysis Systems and other equipment we could provide. For a time, Albania was ready to be this host. After protests there and complications everywhere else, things pivoted to a backup option (to put it mildly) to destroy the chemicals on a ship in international waters.

December 2013

Hydrolysis units are moved from Edgewood Chemical Biological Center to Portsmouth, Virginia, where they were built into the MV Cape Ray.

One of two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems that are installed on the Military Sealift Command container ship MV Cape Ray (U.S. Army / Todd Lopez)

January 3, 2014

Danish and Norwegian ships depart their ports and head to Cyprus. From there, they will move in and out to the Syrian port of Latakia each time a new load of chemical weapons is brought to the port for removal.

January 7, 2014

Syria delivers its first load of chemical weapons to Latakia, from where they are transferred onto a Danish ship.

January 27, 2014

The Cape Ray departs Portsmouth, Virginia, to wait in Rota, Spain.

Frank Kendall, under secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, delivers remarks outside the Military Sealift Command container ship MV Cape Ray (T-AKR 9679) to discuss the ship’s upcoming mission to destroy chemical weapons (U.S. Army / Todd Lopez)

The level of multinational coordination in what happened next was extraordinary. In December 2013, hydrolysis units were moved from Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland to Portsmouth in southern Virginia and built into the MV Cape Ray. Danish and Norwegian ships departed their ports on January 3, 2014; they would wait in Cyprus, moving from there in and out of the Syrian port of Latakia every time a new load of chemical weapons materials was brought to the port to be removed. Security escorts included vessels from China and Russia. The Cape Ray departed on January 27, 2014 to wait in Rota, Spain.

April 2014

The OPCW Director-General establishes the Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) to verify whether Syria’s chemical weapons declarations were accurate and complete.

April 11, 2014

A chemical attack using chlorine gas occurs in Kafr Zeta, a village in northern Syria controlled by opposition forces. This is the first of about 17 alleged attacks on Kafr Zeta reported by witnesses and doctors. Witnesses report at least two deaths and dozens of casualties from these attacks in total.

April 12, 2014

Helicopters drop barrel bombs containing chlorine on Al Tamanah, a village in northern Syria controlled by opposition forces. This is the first of several similar attacks within about a month that are investigated and confirmed by the OPCW.

April 29, 2014

The OPCW Director-General announces the formation of a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) to determine whether chemical weapons were used in Syria (the mandate did not include identifying who was responsible for attacks). The FFM is accepted by the Syrian government.

May 3, 2014

The OPCW FFM Advance Team arrives in Damascus, Syria, and begins preparation and planning for the FFM, including establishing contacts with representatives of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic, parts of the United Nations, and other relevant actors.

May 4, 2014

The Vice Minister of the Syrian Arab Republic, H.E. Mr. Faisal Mekdad, meets with the OPCW Advance Team and commits to providing all necessary support, including supporting security and safety needs. The Vice Minister notes his government’s mutual commitment to the success of the FFM.

May 27, 2014

After working with both government and opposition leaders, the OPCW FFM team departs from Homs along a carefully planned route towards Kafr Zeyta for their first site visit. The team is unable to reach the site due to an armed attack. OPCW team members are released without harm but the mission was aborted.

Throughout the spring, the UN and OPCW personnel worked both on verification of Syria’s compliance in-country during the ongoing war, and began a series of missions and mechanisms to investigate alleged uses of chemical weapons with the aims of proving cases when chemical weapons were used and in some cases determining those responsible. Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, who was the OPCW Director General at the time, has described these actions in detail via the CSR blog.

June 8, 2014

The Norwegian ship Taiko departs to Finland and the United States to deliver chemical materials (that didn’t require neutralization) for their destruction onshore.

June 23, 2014

The final shipment of declared chemicals is removed from Syria.                        

July 2, 2014

The transloading of 600 metric tons of chemical weapons materials from the Danish ship Ark Futura to the Cape Ray is completed. The transfer occurs in the port of Gioia Tauro in southern Italy’s Calabria region, and is monitored by OPCW inspectors.

The transfer of Syrian chemicals from the Danish container ship Ark Futura to the Motor Vessel Cape Ray is completed (U.S. Department of Defense)

Finland, the UK, and others agreed to receive chemicals that did not need to be neutralized, and the effluent from what was neutralized, in commercial hazardous materials facilities for incineration. Italy hosted the careful process of transloading the most dangerous chemical weapons materials to the Cape Ray at the Port of Gioia Tauro, safely completed on July 2, 2014, after months of delays by the Assad regime in moving the materials out of Syria. Dozens of countries contributed funding to facilitate the work and offered many forms of practical support. The neutralization work aboard the Cape Ray was finished on August 17, 2014.

An escort ship, left, pulls alongside the container ship MV Cape Ray (T-AKR 9679) in the Mediterranean Sea (Seaman Desmond Parks)

August 17, 2014

Neutralization of the chemical weapons materials aboard the Cape Ray is completed.                

August 18, 2014

An FFM team arrives in a secure location to conduct interviews with witnesses of the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Talmenes, Al Tamanah, and Kafr Zeta. The interview process lasts until September 4, 2014.

September 10, 2014

The OPCW FFM reports “compelling confirmation” that chlorine gas was being used as a chemical weapon in the towns of Talmanes, Al Tamanah and Kafr Zeta, but does not assign blame for the attacks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted that the use of helicopters to drop chlorine gas “strongly points” toward the Syrian government as conducting the attacks, rather than the opposition groups.        

September 30, 2014

The OPCW-UN Joint Mission mandate is considered complete.

The strategic-level chemical weapons arsenal that existed in Syria at that time was effectively eliminated, though the challenges with Assad’s lack of adherence to the requirements of the Chemical Weapons Convention persisted. Ultimately, the destruction of Assad’s declared chemical weapons marked just the beginning of efforts to stop further chemical weapons use, investigate their use against Syrians, hold its perpetrators accountable, and ensure that Syria abides by its treaty obligations moving forward. Assad has continued to use chemical weapons, and international unity has frayed in UN and OPCW efforts to confirm treaty compliance and keep people safe from these weapons.

These challenges continue, and may grow even worse again. We must keep them at the front of our minds even as we mark 10 years after major successes in international cooperation to peacefully reduce a major chemical weapons threat from the world. For CSR, we see remembering past wins and keeping vigilant regarding current threats as directly linked. My colleague Rear Admiral John Gower and I spoke at a chemical demilitarization conference in the UK last year, and described it this way:

“There should be more public and policy-maker education regarding WMD risks and the practicalities of threat reduction, deterrence, and elimination work.

We risk a range of challenges based on insufficient public attention to these matters. On the one hand, we often see a misguided complacency that WMD risks are a thing of the past. On the other, we are seeing a surge of talented early-career people who recognize these risks and want to work in the field of addressing them. 

One way to address both is to better capture and share the histories involved in this field. This includes both the histories of nations and non-state actors who conducted WMD activities, so that the rationale and drivers that lead in that direction are as well-understood as possible. 

And of course, we need to shine light on the historical achievements in WMD elimination and the incredible levels of technology development, diplomacy, and decision-making that made such work a reality.”

As such, over the coming months we plan to shine a brighter light on chemical weapons threats and various ways to address them. We will revive stories from the Syria case through writing, podcasts, and events. CSR will also aim to highlight other historical lessons learned, such as experiences in eliminating the former Libyan chemical weapons enterprise. Concerted action to address current and future threats must reflect lessons that so many of us learned roughly a decade ago. Many of my CSR colleagues and I will do our best in this endeavor.

I wrote the narrative of this post in the first person given my unique role in some of the events described, though the piece benefited greatly from input by Shannon Green. Additional thanks go to Lillian Parr for developing the timeline and Courtney Tillman for design and layout expertise.

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