The Human Face of Chemical Inspections in Syria

By Egle Murauskaite and Michelle E. Dover – Tasked with the mission of destroying the Syrian government’s chemical weapons capability amidst civil conflict, the United Nations’ Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) faces an immense challenge. This is the first time international inspections and efforts to dismantle a country’s chemical weapons capability are taking place during an active conflict. To effectively protect its inspectors, the OPCW needs a management and support system for what is increasingly looking like a long-term process of engagement in Syria, and possibly a precedent in the making for future inspections.

Presently, international inspectors are working on two parallel tracks. The first effort is the investigation into alleged use, which consists of a fact-finding mission overseen by the United Nations, with assistance from the OPCW and World Health Organization (WHO). The politically sensitive nature of this undertaking has led to a deliberate exclusion of experts from the five permanent state members of the U.N. Security Council from the outset of the mission. This has greatly limited the number of available inspectors, but is likely to be an emerging trend for future fact-finding missions of this kind. The other process is an OPCW-led initiative to verify and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program. The team includes some inspectors from the permanent Security Council members, though the organization’s resources were already stretched before it was handed the task of disarming Syria.

While member states have provided financial and in-kind support for both the verification and dismantlement missions, more attention needs to be paid to creating long-term support for the inspectors, considering what the international community is asking them to do. The thin roster of OPCW inspectors (less than 150) sent to the field is working in a horrid environment, which looks nothing like their daily routines in universities or laboratories. Indeed, while the OPCW is starting the process of training experts to become inspectors – by providing them with better understanding on the OPCW legal and political frameworks, teamwork procedures and efficiency in the field, – member states have met this effort with skepticism, preferring to focus their resources on raising the inspectors’ level of technical expertise.

Aside from the complexities of the mission itself, the inspectors are personally taking on a two-fold risk – to their physical and mental wellbeing. First, there is the active risk of injury and the ability to carry out the mission in an active war zone. Inspectors are not trained soldiers – they are usually scientists (chemists, health specialists etc.) conducting research in laboratories or working in academia. Sending these experts into such a dangerous and lawless environment means very real risks to their lives and state of mind. Because the OPCW has never conducted such a complicated mission before, the rules are being established and resources garnered as they go along. However, despite the highest precautions, inspectors in Syria have already been put in harm’s way. Namely, during the first visit of the UN fact finding mission in August 2013, the team was holed up in a Damascus hotel for days during a particularly violent episode that included chemical weapons use in the vicinity. Soon thereafter their convoy came under a sniper attack, but the inspectors completed their task after changing vehicles. In addition, the access negotiated with the Syrian government means that the official minders and security teams provided by the Assad regime cannot accompany the inspectors into rebel-controlled areas, effectively leaving them to fend for themselves in these pockets of contested territory.

The last time that a comparable international inspection was sent to the field was in Iraq in the 1990s. The UNSCOM inspectors there were working in a post-conflict environment, with the worst of the hostilities already over, and yet they were still threatened by Saddam Hussein’s forces firing warning shots over their heads, and holding the inspections team in a parking lot for four days when they refused to give up documents. A relevant mission of destroying chemical weapons stockpiles and precursor facilities was the one carried out in Libya. After joining the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2004, more than half of Libya’s stockpile had been destroyed by 2011, when malfunctioning equipment halted the process and internal instabilities in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings delayed that process until April 2013. Notably, however, during this time, the OPCW had no in-field presence in Libya. In Syria, the problem is considerably worse as efforts to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons capabilities are taking place during an active conflict.

When it comes to the second challenge, the inspectors are witnessing the horrors of war, including interviews and visits of the victims of the chemical weapons attacks, without being able to intervene –in part due to their mandate, general status as outsiders, and the immensity of the conflict. The international community has witnessed a similar personal tragedy of Canada’s Romeo Dallaire and his small UN contingent in the unfolding genocide in Rwanda. With no international structure to support his efforts and limited resources, in the aftermath he spoke out countless times about facing the dilemma of helplessness, alongside increasing personal risks to his team and himself, and yet knowing the situation would only get worse if he and his men withdrew. Dallaire subsequently became a prominent international figure and advocate for human rights, but the conflict left him scarred with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he has attempted suicide.

 The United Nations and OPCW should provide the appropriate support to the inspectors they currently have on the roster, as well as begin to train others to lessen the burden on that group. Both organizations should ensure inspectors receive continued training for working in conflict zones, as well as institutional support once they are in the field. In light of the growing recognition of PTSD, mental health support should be made available for inspectors upon their return, especially if they are asked to deploy to Syria more than once under current expert shortages. Both the United Nations and OPCW should aim to expand their circle of trained experts, with a focus on finding non-P5 experts in the short-term and making connections with new pools of expertise in universities and laboratories in the long-term.

 When looking at the small number of inspectors against the overwhelming number of casualties in the war, it is easy to argue that the cost – as Jeremy Shapiro framed it in the Economist, “the mental health of a few mid-level officials in the US government” – is  minimal. However, the OPCW experience in Syria is paving the way for future practices in inspections and weapons of mass destruction disarmament missions. The individual costs and personal courage should not be discounted, even in light of such great tragedy as chemical and conventional weapons use in Syria. To attract and maintain the expertise the world needs for these challenging and complex tasks, the inspectors should not be overlooked.

Egle Murauskaite and Michelle E. Dover are Research Associates at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).