September 11, 2013

Removing chemical weapons involves huge hurdles

Even if Syria cooperates, it could take years for the international community to dispose of the weapons.

The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Russia's proposal to place Syria's chemical weapons stockpile under international control for dismantling would involve a lengthy and complicated operation made more difficult by a deep lack of trust – not to mention the lack of an inventory.

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Members of a U.N. team take samples from sand to test for chemical weapons use in Syria. Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile under international control for dismantling would involve a complicated process.

The Associated Press

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Syria is believed by experts to have 1,000 tons of chemical warfare agents scattered over several dozen sites across the country, and just getting them transferred while fighting rages presents a logistical and security nightmare.

Very few details are known so far about the plan announced Monday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, part of a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at averting U.S.-led military strikes in retaliation for a deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

Syria swiftly accepted, and the initiative was endorsed in quick succession by Britain, France and the U.S. as an idea worth exploring. Russia, Syria's most powerful ally, says it is now working with Damascus to come up with a detailed plan of action.


But the process is rife with challenges, taking place to the backdrop of a raging civil war and an opaque regime that until now has never formally confirmed that it has chemical weapons. Lack of trust between the regime's chief supporters and opponents in the international community is likely to complicate the operation.

"This situation falls outside anything that we've known so far," said Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent chemical weapons consultant and disarmament expert.

President Bashar Assad's regime is said to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve gas sarin. There have been longstanding concerns that the embattled leader might unleash them on a larger scale, transfer some of them to the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group, or that the chemical agents could fall into the hands of al-Qaida militants among the rebels.

Many are skeptical that the Syrian regime would follow through on its commitments. The government has typically accepted last-minute deals with the international community to buy time, then argued over the details or fell back on its promises. Most recently, Syria called for an immediate U.N. investigation into an alleged chemical attack near Aleppo in March. Negotiations then dragged on until August before a deal was struck.

"The devil is in the details," said Ralf Trapp, a disarmament consultant who worked for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from 1997 to 2006. "Neither side (of the Syria conflict) has a reputation for sticking to deals for long periods of time."

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, known by its acronym OPCW, will likely work, along with the U.N., on a framework for implementing the deal.

The OPCW is the implementing authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The convention requires all parties to the treaty to declare and to destroy whatever chemical weapons they may possess under the international verification of the OPCW.

Syria is not a signatory, meaning the process would have to start from scratch. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday that his government will declare its chemical weapons arsenal and sign the convention.

The long road toward securing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal would begin with the Syrian government's preparing a detailed, comprehensive declaration of what it possesses, including details on production methodology and precursors for chemical agents.

The OPCW and the U.N. would also have to create a legal structure to prepare and then implement the dismantling program, according to experts.

Even then, Zanders said, "any failure on (the part of) the Syrian government would immediately destroy the confidence of the international community and probably split it again in the type of discussion which we have seen recently."

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