Removing Syria's chemical weapons easier said than done

Experts say destroying Syria'€™s chemical arsenal is technically possible, but a logistical and political nightmare

U.N. chemical weapons experts wearing gas masks carry samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 28, 2013.
Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters

As the wrangling begins over a United Nations Security Council resolution that would place Syria's chemical weapons under international control, experts say that removing or destroying the government’s considerable arsenal would be a logistical and political nightmare -- and might require a protracted cease-fire in Syria's civil war. But it can be done.

"Technically, it's all possible," said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer at the United Kingdom’s Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, and current chief operating officer of chemical weapons consultancy SecureBio.

De Bretton-Gordon cited the case of Iraq, where a portion of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons stocks were destroyed in the mid-1990s. A slow process in the best circumstances, tracking down and destroying chemical weapons stockpiles took years in Iraq.

The scale of the challenge is far larger in Syria, which is in the throes of a full-blown civil war.

"There are calculations that to secure [Syria's chemical weapons], up to 75,000 ground troops are needed," said Dieter Rothbacher, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, in an interview with Reuters. "It took us three years to destroy that stuff under U.N. supervision in Iraq."

No outside powers have thus far indicated any willingness to deploy troops in Syria.

"Chemical arms control requires a permissive environment," said Dan Kaszeta, who has served as a chemical weapons specialist with the U.S. Army and Department of Defense and now runs the consultancy Strongpoint Security in London. "This is not a permissive environment."

Russia -- which on Monday proposed that the Syrian government put its stocks of chemical weapons under international supervision in order to avert U.S. military strikes over the alleged use of such weapons -- has not spelled out a plan to implement that call, or to destroy the weapons.

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In Damascus, Cabinet Minister Ali Haidar said the Russian proposal was still a "broad headline" that needs to be developed. He acknowledged that "there was talk about putting these weapons under international supervision."

But if the goal is to neutralize the threat of neurotoxic agents such as sarin gas, a U.N. team will need to do more than just supervise. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's massive arsenal, which experts believe comprises dozens of remote underground bunkers storing hundreds of tons of nerve agents, would also need to be accounted for, and destroyed.

"It's big. He has one of the biggest chemical weapons programs in the region and even in the world," said Rothbacher, who trained members of the team that just returned from a mission to Syria. The U.N. team of inspectors was deployed to determine whether chemical weapons had in fact been used in a suspected Aug. 21 attack that killed an estimated 1,429 people in the Damascus suburbs.

The Syrian government vehemently denies responsibility for the attack.

Experts say that there are two options for disposing of neurotoxic agents such as sarin: relocate them to a neighboring country for gradual degradation, or destroy them on site. Either process would be lengthy and complicated.

In the past, chemical weapons have been destroyed by dumping them into the sea. The Russians did so in 1945 as World War II came to a close, secretly disposing their stocks of chemical bombs and smoke mines into the Baltic Sea. In this age of greater environmental awareness, such a solution is unlikely to be floated.

Modern, environmentally sound methods involve chemically neutralizing neurotoxic agents in containment. The logistics surrounding this technique are much more complicated, experts say.

"Trying to destroy the weapons in situation isn't going to work," said de Bretton-Gordon. "A cease-fire would have to hold for a month, two months, maybe two years," to allow chemical weapons teams time to locate, catalog and then eliminate chemical stocks.

Instead, he said that the weapons "need to be moved somewhere safe and then destroyed."

In either case, implementing a chemical-weapons disarmament plan "would take many thousands of armed soldiers," Kaszeta said. "It would be the equivalent of an armed invasion of Syria."

Whether there would be takers for a boots-on-the-ground mission remains an open question, as does the issue of who would fund the expensive operation to destroy chemical arms.

While the U.S. might be a prime candidate given its capacities and experience, President Barack Obama has vowed to refrain from sending American troops to Syria, and even if he relented, they would hardly be seen as a neutral force on the ground.

"These things only work if you use a supplier of neutral troops -- like Ghana, Ireland, Switzerland -- but I don’t see any of them being able to do something like this," said Kaszeta.

There is also considerable international doubt over whether Assad would be willing to fully disclose his chemical weapons capabilities.  

"The big challenge will be finding the declared amount of [chemical weapons] -- many of these will be ‘lost in the system,'" said Gwyn Winfield, editorial director of CBRNe World, a magazine that covers chemical and biological weapons. "There is likely to be a huge disparity between what Western intelligence and Syrian forces claim."

"This whole process depends on the Syrians making a fully complete disclosure about their arms stores," Kaszeta said. "And this is a regime that has not been forthcoming about its chemical arsenal."

Eliminating the government’s stock of sarin gas would not necessarily mean an end to chemical warfare in Syria, either. There are plenty of dual-use toxic industrial chemicals with legitimate nonlethal functions, such as chlorine or hydrogen cyanide, which could still be deployed by either side.

However, de Bretton-Gordon said that removing sarin gas would constitute a substantial degradation of the regime's capacity to inflict the kind of casualties seen in the alleged August attack.

"If organic phosphates had been used, you would have seen 1 percent of the casualties," he said.

The Syrian chemical weapons program, set up in the 1970s, reportedly with assistance from Iran and Russia and supplies of raw chemicals from Western companies, was designed as a strategic counter to Israel's undeclared nuclear capability.

Along with Egypt and Israel, Syria is one of just seven countries that are not members of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, overseen by the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

With wire services

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