Sigrid Kaag: March critical month for Syria

Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator for the joint mission of the OPCW and the United Nations speaks to Talal al-Haj, Al Arabiya News Bureau Chief in New York .

Talal Al-Haj:

You spoke to the Security Council on Wednesday, March 5 and you told them that this month, march, is a very critical month, why is that?
 

Sigrid Kaag:


It is a critical month because this is the month where a lot of the implementation needs to happen in order for the Syrian Arab republic to be meeting the deadline of 30th June. As you know it is a complex operation in country but it also involves out of country destruction, it involves maritime partners and for the overall deadline to be met we need to work our way backwards basically so all the chemical materials needs to have left, the elements that needs to be removed, needs to have left the Syrian Arab Republic middle of April, maybe with a few elements that may leave later, but our call of course and our discussion rather with the Syrian authorities is to accelerate, intensify, do as much as could possibly be achieved in the month of march in order to be comfortable that the 30th of June deadline can be met by the other partners when at sea destruction needs to take place.

Talal al-Haj:


Do I understand from you - and correct me if I am wrong please as you always do - if March does not go well, if the bulk of the work that you have to do has not been done, does that mean you have to review the 30th June deadline?


Sigrid Kaag:


I don’t like to speculate on that right now because I think the plan submitted by the Syrians is workable, we consider it realistic as does the director general of the OPCW, so all our efforts will be on securing the timely and safe implementation of the Syrian plan by the Syrians.


The reasons, should delays occur, the reasons for these delays need to be carefully assessed, there should be an evidence base for that, and then it’s up to the state party of OPCW as well as the Security Council to look at considerations.

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Talal al-Haj:


The Syrian plan, can you give our viewers some indication what it entails?


Sigrid Kaag:


The Syrian plan is basically a plan of operation, it looks at sites, it looks at the famous priority 1 and priority 2 chemical materials that need to be removed out of country for destruction elsewhere. at sea aboard the us ship the “cape ray” and the effluents of the materials once destroyed will leave for onward destruction in other countries.


The Syrian plan basically is all that is needed to extract the materials from the different sites where they are currently held to transport it to Latakia that involves verification, sampling, monitoring also by the joint mission and it involves of course also loading on the Danish and Norwegian vessels.


So it is a complex movement operation, and in this case with chemical weapons material. But it is important also for viewers to remember that the most dangerous chemical weapons material, mustard gas, has already been taken out of country and it is aboard the Danish vessel, and work is happening as we speak. So important progress: however we don’t count the end of the day until it is the end of the day.

Talal al-Haj:


And according to the Syrian plan when will these chemical weapons will be out of Syria?


Sigrid Kaag:


According to the Syrian plan as i mentioned, middle of April with some scope for 2 sites which are currently not accessible towards the end, but our work with the Syrian authorities is very much to see that all chemical materials can be extracted from sites earlier on in order for the overall movement to succeed quickly, so there is always space and room in the plan to sort of move away from the deadline and to do it even sooner. The deadline doesn’t mean you wait till the last day, it means you try to get as close to your starting point as possible.

Talal al-Haj:


But from your experience and missing a few deadlines, i mean this is a bit optimistic to expect, isn’t it?


Sigrid Kaag:


no not necessarily, because this is the Syrian plan designed by them, taking all factors into account, the intermediate milestones which were not met, which you will recall from the (OPCW) director general’s report and the (un) secretary general’s report there were a number of reasons, from the weather, logistical, technical delays, arrival of equipment and of course always security conditions. i think that remains the big unknown.

Talal al-Haj:


Aren’t you going to wait till you see how they perform in march before you accept their plan, or have you already accepted?
Sigrid Kaag:


The plan is under implementation and that has also resulted in a number of movements and the increase of movements that we have seen in recent weeks which led to a better assessment on the situation.

Talal al-Haj:


What would you say are the biggest problems you face in implementing your mandate in Syria?


Sigrid Kaag:


The biggest problems I think it changes from day to day, it is a very volatile operating environment. The challenges we face, that everybody faces, are unique. it is a country at war, and as we said from the outset it is never in the history of the OPCW convention has a state party exceeded to the convention under conditions of war, so that poses a number of unique challenges. The timeline of course is very ambitious, but there are reasons for that level of ambition. Everybody is very concerned that chemical weapons material may also fall in the wrong hands due to the conditions of war, so it is in the interest of all that speed and intensification of effort is really sustained.

Talal al-Haj:


You were asked by a journalist on Wednesday concerning the human rights council independent commission of inquiry report that the weapons that were used on 21st august attack and 19th of March attack were from Syrian stockpile. you opted to say that you would refrain from commenting on that, is that because you don’t know, or because you Dont want to rock the boat, especially --


Sigrid Kaag:


I am not in a position to comment, it is an entirely different track, a different process.

Talal al-Haj:


Why are you still optimistic of fulfilling the mandate by the 30th of June? many member states, and I talked to many ambassadors, some of them don’t expect it before the end of the year…


Sigrid Kaag:


Really? Well maybe, let’s look at the secretary general report, let’s look at the Security Council briefings, I am not saying I am pessimistic or I am optimistic, I am very realistic. I work in the field, I am in Syria, I know the progress achieved. I know where the weaknesses are, I know how as a joint mission within our mandate we assist in overcoming problems. So if you look at the pattern of movements over recent weeks and if you look at the expected implementation of the plan, we should have a moderate reason of optimism. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we have always said that. So I think the cup is neither half full neither half empty, we just need to look at it day by day, and I go by facts on the ground, I go with the evidence that i can present on behalf of the joint mission.

Talal al-Haj:


But you can understand there is skepticism because of the missing deadlines of 31st of December, the 5th of February, so far all the deadlines, the important ones, have not been met and that is why they are skeptical.

But I will move forward. Can you give our viewers a good idea of how much has been taken out and how much has been destroyed? And the break out, how much is priority 1 and how much is priority 2?


Sigrid Kaag:


Roughly now, if you look at removal and destruction, because it is important to remember that also chemical material has been destroyed inside Syria. As per the agreed plan with OPCW, about one third has now been removed or destroyed, that is significant. When you look at the balance between priority 1 and priority 2:


Priority 1 we are looking currently at around 20%, priority 2, we are looking at over 30%, and by next week we expect it to be close to 40%, so there is progress.


I think any viewer should be interested in the trend. Is the trend indicating we are getting towards the end point or is the trend indicating a downward slide. We are now at the point in the month of march that this is the litmus test, this is when things have to happen.

Talal al-Haj:


Can you tell us if the events in Ukraine are affecting the implementation of your mandate in any way?


Sigrid Kaag:


From the Security Council debate we have seen continued unity of purpose, consensus around expectation, and direction also towards the joint mission, and of course above all the state party, the Syrian Arab republic, and we anticipate that we will continue to benefit from this support, it is mission critical.

Talal al-Haj:


How critical is your mission to the Syrian people themselves?


Sigrid Kaag:


Well from my understanding as i have also said in my appreciation, given the tremendous humanitarian toll and the impact on the civilian population I am very much aware that our mission is only a very modest - but we hope meaningful - contribution to the peace and security of the people of Syria and the region. However it is the broader context of Syria of course that matters.

Talal al-Haj:


Do you feel from talking to ambassadors on Wednesday, when you briefed them, that there is unity, not only unity behind you, but there is a unity of conviction that the job will be done by 30 June?


Sigrid Kaag:


I think you should ask the ambassadors that, they also work on a month by month, and the secretary general report as well as that of the director general is informing them, and on that basis they basically make their own assessment.


Talal al-Haj:


Did the Cape Ray arrive now or is it still en route?


Sigrid Kaag:


The Cape Ray is in Spain waiting for the call to come closer when all the priority 1 chemical materials can be trans loaded via the port in Italy.

Talal al-Haj:


Why the Danish ship does not take the shipments directly to the Cape Ray instead of going to the Italian port and then from there to the Cape Ray?


Sigrid Kaag:


You need a port for trans-loading basically for the stability of the ship, a ship of that nature cannot be out of port and trans-loading would not be safe otherwise, so it is a pure operational safety measure.

Talal al-Haj:


Did you feel at any time that the shipments out of Syria were affected by Syrian related discussions, whether in New York or Geneva? Some council members I spoke to were concerned that these transfers reflected small gestures made by Syria in order to buy time and deflect pressure - did you ever feel that, or did you feel the Syrians actually were sincere in their behavior and implementation?
 

Sigrid Kaag:
 

I work on facts, this is not an operation where i work on the basis of feelings. We are tuned to perceptions and impressions of member states. However at the end of the day what matters is what we can count, what we can verify, what we can measure, and that is what ultimately I think will sway any one’s opinion in a different direction.

Talal al-Haj:
 

Once your mandate is over and your mission is over, is there talk now of setting up another monitoring and verification mission to be in Syria to make sure that they don’t return back to the same-old-same and would you play a part, would you be prepared to play a part if there is such a mission?


Sigrid Kaag:


I am not aware of any such discussions and what is more important is that upon completion of this mandate all of Syria’s chemical weapons program as declared will be destroyed, it will have been verified, it will have been monitored and reported, and then Syria falls under same routine as all other state parties that have signed up to such a program.

Talal al-Haj:


So there will be monitoring and verification by the OPCW?


Sigrid Kaag:


The OPCW will have its own regulations and protocols as per the convention.

Talal al-Haj:


You said on 25th of February on a Dutch media outlet that this is one of the most dangerous un missions ever, can you explain that to our viewers?


Sigrid Kaag:


Yes, it is the exposure, the risks we run, and I was speaking more broadly: as you know I have a humanitarian development background before I led this mission. it is the risks all international and our national staff for the un in particular run as they undertake missions, i know there is an increase in the rate of kidnapping of national un staff in Syria, the risk levels are very high, the risk of raid’s or remote improvised explosive devices.


We are never sure - and it is one of the higher risk missions and for this mission in particular because especially initially there were skeptics, there was also a heightened level of criticism around the framework agreement that led to the implementation of this deal. So there are a number of reasons which always led my colleague Kevin Kennedy to conclude that this is one of the highest risk operating environments, and within that of course dealing with the chemical weapons elimination mission is the most exposed. It is also very exposed politically one way or another and from our perspective we don’t have an agenda, we are there to do the job for the people of Syria to secure the implementation as safely and securely as possible.

Talal al-Haj:


What are some of the technologies for the destruction of the chemical weapons that have been used?


Sigrid Kaag:


Priority 1 which will be destroyed on the basis of hydrolyses which is a technology that has been made available, the mechanism aboard the us ship, and other priority 2 chemicals will be destroyed in a commercial manner in plants that are sort of designed for that purpose, they exist, it happens day in day out in a number of countries.

Talal al-Haj:


Do you know in which territorial waters these chemical weapons will be destroyed?


Sigrid Kaag:


I have no insight and I think for security reasons the countries concerned, the us but also the NATO-Russia council is discussing the potential security realm around the ship, it is better to ask them.

Talal al-Haj:

Is there any other point you would like to raise?


Sigrid Kaag:


No, I am appreciative of the interest you have shown, and the detailed questions that you ask, it allows us to explain to viewers what is happening.

Talal al-Haj:
Sigrid Kaag, thank you so much for this interview.

 

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