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Why wouldn’t the world’s chemical weapons watchdog talk to Syria?

Before reports of chemical weapons use surfaced earlier this year in Syria, Rolf Ekeus, a prominent Swedish arms control specialist who headed up the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the 1990s, had been exploring ways to learn more about the chemical stockpiles in Syria and several other countries that were beyond the reach of the world's chemical weapons watchdog.

As chairman of a senior advisory group for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ekeus privately advocated that the agency appoint a special emissary that could reach out to those governments -- Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan -- that had never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and were therefore not subject to international scrutiny. (Israel and Myanmar have signed the convention.)

The goal was two-fold: encourage these outliers to join the treaty body, and in the meantime, gather some insights into the scope of their programs, particularly in Syria, where international concern about the fate of the country's chemical stockpile was coming into relief as the country slid deeper into civil war.

But Ekeus encountered resistance from Ahmet Uzumcu, a former Turkish diplomat who serves as executive director of the Hague-based OPCW, and who vigorously opposed the initiative. The agency's executive council, which includes Britain, China, France, Iran, Russia, and the United States, also showed little interested in the proposal. They said "absolutely not," Ekeus recalled during a phone interview from his home in Stockholm. "These countries are not a party to the treaty so we have nothing to do with them," he was told. "I wanted a permanent arrangement for dialogue with non-members of the convention," he said. "Everyone was against it."

Ekeus said his "feeble effort" to reach out to these countries "was killed" in discussions by his advisory group, squandering an opportunity to improve the organization's understanding of the Syrian chemical weapons program.

Ekeus's disclosure comes weeks after Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist and former Ekeus protégé, was appointed to lead a U.N. mission investigating conflicting claims about the uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Sellstrom -- who was recruited by Ekeus in the 1990s to hunt for chemical weapons in Iraq -- is relying on the OPCW to supply most of his team's 15 inspectors. They have little first-hand knowledge of Syria's chemical weapons program, according to Ekeus.

The Syrian government insists that rebels attacked Syrian forces with chemical weapons on March 19 outside the city of Aleppo, But Syrian opposition leaders, along with Britain, France, and Israel, have counterclaimed that Syria fired chemical weapons at its own people on at least three separate incidents. President Barack Obama said the United States believes chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that there is insufficient evidence to prove who did it.

It remains unclear why the OPCW and its board members objected to the Ekeus request. A spokesman for the chemical weapons watchdog, Michael Luhan, declined to comment on the matter. Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged countries that have not ratified the chemical weapons convention to do so.

Perhaps it is unlikely to expect that Syria, which does not publically acknowledge it possesses chemical weapons, would reveal its most guarded national security secrets to an international emissary. Ekeus said that organization's failure to proactively court the Syrians has left them in the dark.

"There is very little knowledge about what they [the Syrians] really have because the organization does not want to touch governments, which are not parties to the treaties," he said. "My proposal was that they should try to build some skills, but now it's too late. Now, Sellstrom has to start from scratch."

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