April 17, 2023
IMAGE: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman oversee the first meeting of their interagency team before the kickoff negotiating session with their Russian counterparts focused on eliminating Syrian chemical weapons. Photo by the State Department.
Tom Countryman was the former Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation. After Syrian forces used chemical weapons against civilians in August 2013, a military response to this was averted in favor of an international diplomatic effort that cooperatively gathered and destroyed Syria’s remaining stockpile of chemical weapons.
Interviewed by Nick Roth.
TOM COUNTRYMAN: It was probably five to eight kilograms of sarin that killed 1,000 people within minutes, and so put that in the context of 1,300 tons of various chemical weapons, and you could see the magnitude of the catastrophe that we hoped we had averted.
My name’s Tom Countryman. I was in the State Department for 35 years, rising from lowly ranks up to being the Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation, and it was in fulfilling that role that I got the opportunity to live this story, and now to share it with you.
It’s not that I was the best expert in the United States government either on the general topic of non-proliferation or the specific topic of chemical weapons, but I had the job in which my duty was to organize, lead, and represent the real experts within the bureau on what they needed done in international negotiations, interagency meetings, public appearances.
When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, in a number of Arab countries, there were uprisings, demonstrations that overturned longstanding governments with a greater or lesser degree of violence. There was no place a greater degree of violence than in Syria, where at first, an organized civil uprising in protest of the government quickly devolved into a war by that government against its own people.
Syria had one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world, and that these chemical weapons might not only be used by the regime against its own people, could be used by the regime against its neighbors in Israel or Turkey or Jordan, and could fall into the hands either of terrorist elements in a generally chaotic environment, or into the hands of a new government if they succeeded in overthrowing Assad, and so we had to worry about all of those issues.
How can you eliminate these weapons? What are the options, from bombing, to direct invasion, to some other means to get a hold of and eliminate those weapons? And in particular, that question led to a very intensive study, a very large working group within the Department of Defense that asked itself a very important question, which is if we ever get hold of those tons and tons of chemical weapons, how could we neutralize or destroy them? And that led to one of the key technical breakthroughs that made possible what we later achieved.
The Syrian civil war is much bigger than just the use of chemical weapons. I think the estimate is that no more than 2% of all the civilians killed by their own government have been killed by chemical weapons. Every other form of bombing, strafing has been used by the government, so this does not in itself solve the Syrian civil war.
In August 2013, Syrian forces launched shells filled with sarin, a nerve toxin, against a civilian population, killing more than 1,000 civilians, of course, denying that they had done it, blaming it on terrorists. But because the United States had repeatedly warned the regime publicly and privately against using chemical weapons, there now was a demand for some form of US response, and that led to some interesting public and private diplomacy between Washington and Moscow, with Secretary Kerry making a statement that said we could forego military strikes if Assad would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and eliminate all his weapons, but of course, he’s not going to do that.
And that public statement led the Russian foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov to communicate to Kerry, “Maybe we can get him to do that. Maybe Russia can force its satellite, Syria, to accept the Chemical Weapons Convention.” So that was the background to Lavrov and Kerry agreeing let’s meet in Geneva a couple days from now and work that out.
So in a hurry, the United States government assembled the right team of experts. It included me as the senior State Department representative behind Secretary Kerry, as well as the right experts from the White House, the intelligence community, and crucially, from the Department of Defense, both chemical weapons experts and logistics experts. We got together in Geneva.
The Russians didn’t have as big or as expert a team as we had, but in the very first evening consultations, you could see immediately that on the smaller question, what to do about chemical weapons, Russian and American interests lined up.
On the much bigger question of the civil war, they diverged.
So we agreed that first night to form two working groups. One working group would focus on what we needed to do legally within the United Nations Security Council and at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, in The Hague, and that group was led on the American side by the US Ambassador to the OPCW, Bob Mikulak, and the second working group was to work on what physically we needed to do. How do you evaluate, move, and destroy these chemical weapons? And I chaired that working group for the American side. The next day, we got down to work, and it went pretty smoothly.
First, on the intelligence side, we had our best expert on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile explain to the Russians what we thought we knew. There were about 1,300 tons of chemical weapons at these locations, and we expected that Russia would have its own estimate, since Russia has much closer ties and even a military presence in Syria, but in fact, they didn’t have many details to add, and accepted our estimate as being accurate.
Next, we talked about how you can destroy these weapons, and we talked for example, about the fact that both in the United States, in Colorado and Kentucky, and at a couple of locations in Russia, there are plants that are dedicated to the destruction of the Cold War arsenals left over by the US and the Soviet Union, in fact, the ones in Russia were built partly with American money.
So we said, “These are options,” and the Russians said, “No, we don’t want to import chemical weapons to be destroyed in Russia. It’s against our law.” We pointed out that President Putin could probably change that law if he wanted to get this done, but they did not move on that.
So we then described the possibility of doing it outside of Syria, moving weapons outside of Syria and destroying them in another location, and this is where DOD’s great technical innovation came in.
The experts in the Department of Defense, because they had asked the right question, how would we destroy these weapons if they ever fall into our hands, in that intervening year and a half had come up with what they called the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, a machine that you could break apart, put into a container, move on a truck or a ship, set it up anywhere, and as long as you had a good water supply, you could neutralize these chemicals.
And we had the US experts explain to very skeptical Russian experts how this system would work, and at the end, the Russians were satisfied that that would work. Now, you note we left out one very important detail that we were not able to solve in that long day of negotiation, and that is where would the destruction take place? Russia had rejected it. We thought it was too far to take it to the US, and to be honest, we would’ve run into the same bureaucratic problems in the US that many other countries would face in accepting this shipment, but we had to leave that undone for the moment.
For a few days, I had no idea where we would do this.
It didn’t last long, because of very innovative thinking by my team, that gave me confidence we would find something, and similar innovative thinking by the Department of Defense, which quickly conceptualized and then realized this idea of putting these six field hydrolysis systems, which some in the Department of Defense liked to call the margarita, because it resembled a mixer for making frozen drinks, putting them aboard a US ship, and doing the destruction that way, and of course, that’s what ultimately happened, to the great credit of some very innovative thinkers within DOD.
From our side, we had this phenomenal effort by the Department of Defense team to, when we were unable to find any country that was willing to host these portable hydrolysis units, that we decided to put these aboard a US ship, and do the destruction in the middle of the Mediterranean, and that is a remarkable technological story that is not mine to tell.
We next talked about logistics, and we had again the right experts from the Department of Defense on logistics, how you move things from one place to another, what’s required to move 1,300 tons of dangerous stuff from one location, from various locations in Syria to the Port of Lattakia in a situation of civil war.
And the US experts put together their estimates of what it would take. The Russians added some detail, but we essentially agreed that it was feasible, even in a situation of civil war, to move all of these things from various locations to that port.
After the logistics experts from the two sides had discussed all this, I asked each of them, what would be the fastest possible? If we really did all available resources for this job, how fast could we do it?
The answer from the US military specialist was six months.
The answer from the Russian military specialist was 12 months.
And I said, as chairman of the group, “Okay, rather than analyze this in still more detail, let’s just say nine months, and nine months ought to be sufficiently ambitious, but still attainable if we are willing to push each other to get this done.”
Rounding up diplomatic partners from around the world, that is, getting both monetary support and logistical support, for example, a ship to move goods from Lattakia out to where the US ship was based, getting money from the European Union, Japan, Korea, Canada, getting other countries to provide security for the entire maritime operation, and making sure that the legal efforts, the decisions that had to be made in New York at the United Nations, in The Hague at the Organization for the Prohibition of CW, that these continued on pace. So it kept me going for the whole year.
We did not get to a ceasefire and a political process for peace in Syria, but we did have the grudging cooperation of the Russians over the next nine months in pushing the Syrians. Sometimes they would advocate for the Syrians, sometimes make excuses for why it was going slow, but they were continually pressing the Syrians to try to meet that goal.
Throughout this process, there was a lot of US-Russian communication. One of the pre-conditions that made the Geneva negotiations much easier is that as part of this interagency process led by the National Security Council, the US reached out to Russia and had, I’m not sure if it was two or three very detailed meetings between the two National Security Councils to discuss just Syrian chemical weapons, not the broader issue of the Syrian civil war, but just the chemical weapons issue, and that lay the basis for understanding each other better before we got to Geneva.
Now, as it turned out, most of the Russians that I negotiated with in that day and a half were not known to me previously, but I knew enough about how to show respect towards Russians, how not to show any sign of condescension, even when it was clear that the US experts knew this brief much better than the Russian experts, and to give them every opportunity to feel that this was an equal negotiation.
There was a good moment in Geneva as we finished the negotiations and made the announcement and then went out to brief the press, where I was asked for understanding the magnitude of the challenge, what do you think was the amount of sarin that was used to kill 1,000 people in August?
And we had the experts there who could give an answer that it was probably five to eight kilograms of sarin that killed 1,000 people within minutes, and so put that in the context of 1,300 tons of various chemical weapons, and you could see the magnitude of the catastrophe that we hoped we had averted.
I’ll just note my own summary of the the key lessons learned.
One is to always have in mind the political context in which you are operating. If the political context between the president and the Congress had been different, there may have been different options available for this operation, may well have been a military outcome instead of a negotiated outcome.
Second is the importance of knowing who the right people are and getting them motivated or not motivated, mobilized to be on the ground for this important negotiation, and I think that’s one in which the Obama administration performed exceedingly well, that the people, we had the right people, they were prepared with the right information and objectives for this negotiation.
And maybe the most important lesson is exemplified by what the Department of Defense did, which is ask the right question, not just here’s where we are, what do we do next? But look at the end result, what is the goal, and what will we need, working backwards from the goal, what will we need to achieve that goal? And that’s what led them to creation of this very innovative destruction system.
And finally, no matter how tough things are between Washington and Moscow, there are always common interests, and you cannot allow the difficulty of the political relationship, the huge dispute we may have with them on other issues to prevent us from finding those points where our common interest lead us to a common success.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.
Mr. Countryman was the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He served for 35 years as a member of the U.S. Foreign Service until January 2017, achieving the rank of minister-counselor, and was appointed in October 2016 to the position of acting undersecretary of state. He simultaneously served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, a position he had held since September 2011.