Adam Hedengren
Last updated: 12 December, 2013

The Syrian chemical operation – question marks and local engagement

Your Middle East asked the recent Right Livelihood Award recipient Paul Walker of the Green Cross a few questions about the Syrian chemical weapons efforts.

The Nobel Prize winning chemical weapons watchdog OPCW came from a busy schedule when arriving at the Swedish Parliament on Thursday. The event, which also gathered that nation’s foreign minister Carl Bildt and Paul Walker of Green Cross, a key civil society player in the global effort to combat chemical weapons, focused on the so-called Syrian mission. Assad’s toxic arsenal is to be destroyed, but a number of question marks float around. It comes down to the basics really, as in ”how are we going to do this?”

Luckily, there seems to be some emerging consensus and the work is already underway. Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Walker repeatedly spoke of the need to involve local communities when working with chemical arms disarmament. This, I thought, raised some interesting questions when applied to Syria.

“There has been discussions about the need for public dialogue”

The effort to remove Assad’s arsenal is unprecedented – OPCW, which is the leading party, enters into a war zone with fragmented societies and communities split into pieces. So how will local engagement – which Walker says “is a must” – be realised in Syria? People are predominantly occupied with foodstuffs – well the lack thereof – and other human needs unfulfilled.

I asked Mr Walker about this. “There has been discussions about the need for public dialogue, publicity, public information on the whole Syrian demilitarisation operation,” he responded. “I think to date, it’s actually been quite good – the OPCW and the United Nations have both reached out.”

At the same time, he mentioned there was little room to engage in practical activities on the ground without putting people at risk.

“With that said, I think there has to be complete transparency on the operation. Not necessarily on the movement of chemical weapons within Syria, but on the operation itself.”

So, there are in fact steps being taken to (possibly) involve the population as well as Syrian civil society.

But we should not yet feel at ease. As the Green Cross chief noted towards the end, we are not actually quite sure if destruction will be at sea. If that’s the case, we are not even sure which sea to use.

What is the space for public dialogue when uncertainties remain? It is obvious that the mission needs to get some facts straight, it is also clear that a lot of people are working hard to get this thing done. And it could do serious good for the region as a whole.

As Walker told me: “You’ll here a little more news on that in the next few weeks.”