Matt Nash

Complications abound for Syrian chemical disarmament

Both logistics and politics stand in the way of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons

Tough job.

Both politically and logistically, getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons would be a long and difficult process. The major parties trying to negotiate a deal are very far from seeing eye-to-eye on how to proceed, and securing and destroying an unknown amount of weapons held in an unknown number of locations during the middle of a civil war is complicated, to say the least.


France – which has been in the lead in calling for action against Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons to target rebels – wants a UN Security Council resolution detailing Damascus’ chemical disarmament that includes “punishment” if the regime fails to deliver. Russia, which floated the weapons handover idea, wants neither a full UNSC resolution nor any threat of force if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flouts any future deal.


“It is difficult to constrain Syria or another country to disarm unilaterally while military action against that country is being prepared,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday, in response to news on a draft resolution being prepared by France.


Later that same day, US President Barak Obama made clear that, even as diplomacy is pursued, a “a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective” is not off the table.


“I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails,” Obama said.


The US and Russia are currently negotiating the contours of a disarmament deal in Geneva.


Even if a deal is reached, however, implementing it would be hard in peacetime, let alone in a war zone.


Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem said earlier this week that his country would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the munitions the government is only now formally admitting it has. Until Mouallem’s announcement, Syria never explicitly said it has a chemical weapons arsenal.


In July 2012, former Syrian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi apparently accidentally admitted the regime had chemical weapons in stressing that they would never be used against other Syrians, but only if a foreign country invaded Syria. Later, the government tried to walk the statement back by issuing an amended version of Makdissi’s remarks that removed the clear admission. Prior to that, Bashar’s father and former president, Hafez al-Assad, had only hinted that Syria might have such weapons.


Signing the convention would make it easier to find and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons as it is the only international protocol in place for such an undertaking.


Paul Walker, the director of environmental security and sustainability with Green Cross International, explained in an e-mail message to NOW that, apart from the convention, “there is no legal mechanism for a non-State Party other than to request help from other countries.” He added that if Syria didn’t sign the convention, the UN could authorize the monitors it created on a mission to Syria anyway.


That said, it will still be difficult to find all of Syria’s chemical weapons, and trust will certainly play a role. When Libya announced it was giving up its weapons of mass destruction in 2003, disarmament began under then-President Moammar Qaddafi. Shortly after his ouster, the new government found a hidden stockpile of chemical weapons.


Kelsey Davenport, a non-proliferation analyst with the US-based Arms Control Association, told NOW that “any sort of UN resolution requiring Assad to give up his weapons is going to need to contain some very strong inspection and verification measures to ensure we are able to ascertain all of the sites.”


Davenport added that, given the ongoing civil war in Syria, searching for chemical weapons “would require coordination not only with the Assad regime but with some of the opposition forces, but we believe that if an international team that is well-respected by all sides, access issues can be worked out.”


If and when they are found, destroying them is a whole other matter.


Walker, of Green Cross International, noted that “all seven declared [chemical weapons] possessor states to date have destroyed their chemical weapons stockpiles on their own territory, primarily due to the risks and costs of shipment. In fact, the stockpiles have all been destroyed at or near their location to avoid any transport at all.”


Further, the process of finding, securing, and destroying Syria’s stockpiles would likely take years.


“A small stockpile of mustard agent, for example, in bulk containers could be burned in 6 months or less, as happened with the Albanian stockpile of 16 MTs of mustard,” Walker said.  “Larger stockpiles, such as in South Korea and India, might take 2-4 years to destroy.  And the largest stockpiles in the US and Russia have now taken 23 years and 12 years respectively, and will likely take another 5-10 years to complete.”


Read this article in Arabic

UN inspectors came under fire when investigating alleged chemical weapons use outside of Damascus. Finding, security, and destroying all of Syria’s chemical weapons would be much more difficult. (AFP Photo/ YouTube)

“‘Any sort of UN resolution requiring Assad to give up his weapons is going to need to contain some very strong inspection and verification measures to ensure we are able to ascertain all of the sites.’”

  • NotSure1

    I hope the UN can be accurate and tell the world how much Bashar has and how long it will take to destroy them. So far we know it may take till mid-2014. If this means Bashar is staying until 2014, who knows may be more, to destroy the chemical weapons, then Bashar and Russia were very smart and signed a life agreement to keep him in power; if this is the case, Bashar should reveal victory. And now he has more time to kill using conventional weapons

    September 15, 2013