WASHINGTON — The task of securing Syria’s chemical weapons would present a host of obstacles, from safeguarding inspectors in a war zone and locating thousands of components to safely disposing of the deadly munitions, according to US and international specialists.
The United States and key allies Britain and France began hashing out a UN resolution Tuesday based on a Russian proposal for President Bashar Assad of Syria to swiftly relinquish control over his arsenal of poison gas. In exchange he would avoid a retaliatory US strike for using the weapons against civilians.
Carrying out such an agreement would be virtually unprecedented in the history of disarmament, according to former weapons inspectors and the international organization responsible for implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, which 189 countries have signed since 1993.
“It is a bold proposal,” said Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Netherlands, which was established to police the international treaty banning chemical weapons. “There has never been a country in a state of civil war with chemical weapons that has joined the convention. Our personnel can only operate with so much risk. We’re not an army. These aren’t soldiers.”
For the first time Tuesday, Syria acknowledged its arsenal of chemical weapons and said it would sign on to the international convention banning their use.
How international inspectors could safely operate in the war-torn country, however, is just one of numerous challenges.
Another is simply the sheer size of the arsenal, which is believed to be one of the largest in the world — estimated by the US government to total hundreds of tons and thousands of weapons designed to be delivered by artillery and aircraft.
“There is a scale issue,” said Leonard Spector, a chemical weapons specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “The quantity of material is enormous. Bunkers upon bunkers.”
Another question would be the circumstances under which they would be destroyed.
The chemical weapons treaty stipulates that the destruction, while monitored by international inspectors, must be undertaken by the country itself.
While Syria would be eligible to receive outside assistance, as other nations have, it would be responsible for the actual dismantlement of the chemical shells and rockets.
Syria does not currently have the facilities required to safely incinerate chemical weapons, like those constructed in the United States, Russia, India, South Korea, Iraq, and most recently Libya.
There is the potential that the United States could assist in the destruction, including providing mobile chemical weapons destruction facilities, specialists said. But that would depend on the security situation on the ground.
Then there is the central question of Assad’s sincerity. Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention and therefore the details of its chemical arsenal are not known. If Syria became a party to the treaty it would be required to declare the full size and location of its arsenal.
Given its history, however, there is the real prospect that the regime would not be fully forthcoming.
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, after meeting with his Russian counterpart, repeated Tuesday that Assad was prepared to accept the Russian proposal.
“We held a very fruitful round of talks with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov yesterday, and he proposed an initiative relating to chemical weapons. And in the evening we agreed to the Russian initiative,” Moualem said, according to the Interfax news agency. He said the decision to give up the weapons was made to “remove the grounds for American aggression,” the report said.
But Spector cited the example of Iraq in the 1990s, when the United Nations destroyed its stockpile of chemical weapons following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as a cautionary tale of Syria’s true intentions.
“We saw what Saddam Hussein did in Iraq to hide material,” he said. “Syria could slow things down and obscure what is really going on.”
Another cautionary tale could be found in Libya, which agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2003 under the treaty.
That process was nearly complete when it was halted in 2010 amidst the country’s civil war. When it resumed under a new government, treaty monitors discovered that Libya was not truthful in its initial declaration of the size and location of its weapons and had been hiding some.
There is also a deep distrust of Russia’s intentions. Moscow has been a key supporter of Assad and is supplying arms to help bolster his forces against the rebel groups fighting to oust him since early 2011.
Such lack of trust is a major reason the Obama administration continued to express deep skepticism on Tuesday that it was possible to fashion a credible disarmament process in a timely fashion.
“We’re waiting for that proposal. But we’re not waiting for long,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told a hearing of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. “President Obama will take a hard look at it. But it has to be swift, it has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic.”
Members of Congress, who are deeply wary of giving Obama the authority to punish Syria with military strikes, urged Russia on Tuesday to keep its word and convince Syria to cooperate with the proposal.
“I hope Russia is being serious and that they will take real, legitimate actions to quickly follow through on what they have raised,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on the Senate floor.
But many asserted that the only way it could work would be for the threat of a military strike against Assad to remain credible.
“All of us are hopeful that this option could be a real solution to this crisis, yet we must be clear-eyed and ensure it is not a stalling tactic by Syria and its Russian patrons,” Secretary of Defense Chuck R. Hagel told the House panel. “And for this diplomatic option to have a chance of succeeding, the threat of US military action must continue to be very real and credible.”
Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said Monday that he stands ready to assist if the pressure leads to a deal to ban Syria’s chemical weapons program.
The organization “is committed to promoting the universality of this norm and stands ready to support international efforts that would strengthen it,” he said.