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

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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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Following that, inspectors, most likely from the OPCW, would go to the country for verification, but only after getting assurances from both the government and the rebels that engineers and technicians can operate safely.

"It would be an enormous effort. The challenges are great, not just technical but also political and emotional. But if people want to do it, it can be done of course," Zanders said.

Still, Zanders said the process could take a year, if not more.


Eli Carmon, a counterterrorism expert at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private Israeli university, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that transferring out chemical weapons and destroying them is "impossible in the short term."

"There is great difficulty to take control of this arsenal, to check how large it is, how and where to transfer it, and how to destroy it," Carmon said.

Dany Shoham, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the Israel-based Bar Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said chemical weapons agents could be removed by air or by sea in a carefully coordinated mission. Those carrying out the mission would have to ensure that the weapons are not stolen and that there is no threat of an explosion or leak.

According to a report released Sunday by the Israeli institute, Syria's chemical weapons are stored in some 50 different cities, mostly near the Turkish border in northern Syria.

The report said that Syria began to produce its own chemical weapons in 1973 as a deterrence to Israel, and intensified production after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed in 1979. Since 2009, Syria has been amassing a larger chemical weapons arsenal and engineering more complex chemical compounds, the report said.

According to the report and multiple other experts, Syria is believed to have mustard, sarin and nerve agents such as VX, along with aerial bombs, artillery shells, rockets and ballistic missiles that can deliver chemical weapons.

Destruction of the arsenal is also problematic, requiring a secure destruction facility to be developed and commissioned. Experts say nerve gas has to be disposed of properly in locations with high temperatures and controls to keep gas from escaping to minimize the risk of accidentally gassing other people.

One option reportedly being considered is moving the stockpile to a Russian naval base in Tartous, a regime stronghold on the Mediterranean, for destruction.

Another option is moving the weapons out of the country to a destruction facility. Analysts say there are only two countries, the United States and Russia, that have facilities that can deal with such amounts.


Experts spoke of two relatively recent and somewhat comparable precedents.

One is the disarmament of Iraq after the Gulf War by the U.N. Special Commission.

"The difference was this was a defeated country and you could operate under totally different conditions," Trapp said. "Here we are in the middle of a civil war, and so you will need all the cooperation of all sides of the conflict in Syria. Otherwise it won't work."

In the other case, Libya declared in 2003 it had 25 metric tons of sulfur mustard and 1,400 metric tons of precursor chemicals used to make chemical weapons. It also declared more than 3,500 unfilled aerial bombs designed for use with chemical warfare agents such as sulfur mustard, and three chemical weapons production facilities.

At the time, the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was trying to shed his image as an international outcast and restore relations with Western governments, and in 2004 underscored his commitment to dismantle his weapons by using bulldozers to crush 3,300 unloaded aerial bombs that could have been used to deliver chemical weapons.

Libya destroyed nearly 13.5 metric tons (15 tons) of sulfur mustard in 2010, about 54 percent of its stockpile. The OPCW had inspectors in Libya up until February 2011 verifying the destruction process but left as the anti-Gadhafi rebellion gathered intensity.

Regional affairs expert Efraim Inbar cautioned that Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, may not reveal all of his stockpiles and could even continue to produce new chemical weapons.

"I don't think supervision of weapons is ever 100 percent," said Inbar, who directs the Begin-Sadat Center. "You can always cheat."

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