Syrian Chemical Weapons Seen Likely to Ship to Albania for Destruction

Albanian and Dutch specialists remove toxic pesticides near a former chemical plant in the Balkan nation in 2006. The government in Tirana is said to be interested in hosting Syrian chemical-weapon materials for destruction.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 30, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — U.S. of­fi­cials are pur­su­ing an in­creas­ingly likely pos­sib­il­ity that Al­bania will ac­cept Syr­i­an chem­ic­al weapons for de­struc­tion, fol­low­ing Nor­way’s de­cision last week to de­cline the task, ac­cord­ing to key sources and is­sue ex­perts.

Some oth­er coun­tries — in­clud­ing Bel­gi­um — as of re­cent days also had not ruled out a role in the ef­fort, sources said. The un­der­tak­ing likely will in­volve us­ing spe­cial U.S.-provided ma­chinery to di­lute or burn Syr­ia’s es­tim­ated 1,000 met­ric ton stocks of sar­in nerve agent and mus­tard gas.

Which state — or mul­tiple states — might take on such a polit­ic­al and en­vir­on­ment­al bur­den “is largely a func­tion of money and will­ing­ness to par­ti­cip­ate,” Paul Walk­er, dir­ect­or of en­vir­on­ment­al se­cur­ity and sus­tain­ab­il­ity at Green Cross In­ter­na­tion­al, said in a Tues­day in­ter­view.

Wash­ing­ton has asked “most, if not all,” of its West European al­lies to con­sider tak­ing the il­li­cit Syr­i­an arms for elim­in­a­tion, he said. Based on his own dis­cus­sions with U.S. gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials over the past week, Walk­er said Al­bania, Bel­gi­um and France ap­pear to be the “most-live op­tions.”

In in­ter­views with Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, oth­er dis­arm­a­ment ex­perts and of­fi­cials men­tioned vari­ous com­bin­a­tions of coun­tries un­der con­sid­er­a­tion — some ad­ded Sweden or Den­mark as pending pos­sib­il­it­ies — but Al­bania and Bel­gi­um sur­faced re­peatedly as the most likely can­did­ates.

Walk­er char­ac­ter­ized Nor­way’s an­nounce­ment about back­ing out as hav­ing sur­prised many U.S. of­fi­cials in­volved in the in­ter­na­tion­al talks. Oslo cited time con­straints and na­tion­al reg­u­la­tions as obstacles to its in­volve­ment.

State De­part­ment spokes­per­sons did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment be­fore press time on Wed­nes­day.

A team of in­ter­na­tion­al in­spect­ors still on the ground in Syr­ia by Monday had vis­ited 21 of the coun­try’s de­clared chem­ic­al sites, des­troy­ing equip­ment used for mix­ing bin­ary chem­ic­al agents and load­ing shells un­der the terms of the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion re­cently signed by Dam­as­cus. The in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment bans the pro­duc­tion, stock­pil­ing or use of these arms.

Pa­tri­cia Lewis, re­search dir­ect­or for in­ter­na­tion­al se­cur­ity at Chath­am House in Lon­don, de­scribed this step as a huge ac­com­plish­ment in it­self.

“If you can pre­vent the filling of shells “¦ it puts the people of Syr­ia first” by mak­ing an­oth­er mass chem­ic­al at­tack vir­tu­ally im­possible, she said in a Monday phone in­ter­view.

Just two fa­cil­it­ies loc­ated in con­tested areas of the na­tion had yet to be vis­ited by in­spect­ors as a Nov. 1 dead­line loomed for ren­der­ing Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al-weapons pro­duc­tion gear in­op­er­able.

The Or­gan­iz­a­tion for the Pro­hib­i­tion of Chem­ic­al Weapons is ex­pec­ted to re­move all iden­ti­fied banned ma­ter­i­als from Syr­ia by the middle of 2014.

Once the chem­ic­al war­fare ma­ter­i­als are situ­ated out­side of the Middle East­ern na­tion, their de­struc­tion may take much longer to ac­com­plish, a num­ber of spe­cial­ists noted. However, these arms would be safe­guarded dur­ing the de­struc­tion pro­cess and — most im­port­antly — no longer avail­able for use in the Syr­i­an civil war, these sources said.

The stun­ning turn of events in which Syr­ia for the first time pub­licly ac­know­ledged its chem­ic­al stock­pile and agreed to turn it over to in­ter­na­tion­al au­thor­it­ies was pre­cip­it­ated by an Au­gust at­tack in the Dam­as­cus sub­urbs that Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies main­tain killed more than 1,400 people.

The tons of leth­al tox­ins would likely be moved out of Syr­ia by mil­it­ary air­craft, ac­cord­ing to Richard But­ler, who once served ex­ec­ut­ive chair­man of the U.N. Spe­cial Com­mis­sion on dis­arm­ing Ir­aq’s weapons of mass de­struc­tion and its as­so­ci­ated mis­sile ar­sen­al.

“It wouldn’t be a small job,” the former Aus­trali­an en­voy said in a Tues­day phone in­ter­view.

Bel­gi­um has ac­crued dec­ades of ex­per­i­ence in col­lect­ing and dis­pos­ing of of­ten-tox­ic ord­nance dat­ing back to World War I, much of which con­tin­ues to lie in fields and on road­sides today. Just last year, the Bel­gian mil­it­ary cleaned up 105 tons of such mu­ni­tions, the Lon­don Tele­graph re­por­ted in Ju­ly.

Of the coun­tries still mulling a pos­sible role, Al­bania is said to be most keen on ac­cept­ing some or all of Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al ar­sen­al. One U.N. source said the South­east­ern European na­tion may have been ini­tially ap­proached by the Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment about tak­ing on the pro­ject.

Al­bania in 2007 was the world’s first to des­troy all of its chem­ic­al arms in veri­fi­able fash­ion, elim­in­at­ing more than 16 met­ric tons of mus­tard gas and oth­er tox­ic agents. It did so dur­ing a six-month peri­od, us­ing a Ger­man-de­signed in­cin­er­at­or with Swiss tech­nic­al as­sist­ance, Walk­er said.

“Al­bania was de­scribed to me as en­thu­si­ast­ic” about play­ing a role in the up­com­ing pro­cess, said Charles Duelfer, who served in the 1990s as UN­SCOM deputy chair­man. “It could eas­ily be something that raises their stature.”

The gov­ern­ment in Tir­ana might see the tim­ing as pro­pi­tious; the Balkan state’s ap­plic­a­tion for European Uni­on mem­ber­ship has been pending since 2009, the year it be­came a NATO mem­ber.

“They would pre­sum­ably make good money from it,” But­ler said. “And it would show them as a good in­ter­na­tion­al cit­izen.”

But among the can­did­ate host-na­tions, Al­bania also may pose the greatest lo­gist­ic­al and se­cur­ity chal­lenges.

Tir­ana is widely per­ceived as hav­ing a re­l­at­ively cor­rupt pub­lic sec­tor, pos­sibly height­en­ing the risk of di­ver­sion of some of the Syr­i­an chem­ic­als to the black mar­ket or to ex­trem­ists, some ex­perts said. A CIA coun­try pro­file de­scribes Al­bania as a source of sex traf­fick­ing, forced labor and money laun­der­ing, and says il­li­cit drug trans­it through the state is on the rise.

In con­trast to the ad­vanced eco­nom­ies and in­fra­struc­ture of the West European na­tions, Al­bania also faces po­ten­tially ser­i­ous lim­it­a­tions in trans­port­a­tion, com­mu­nic­a­tions and elec­tri­city, the CIA stat­ist­ics sug­gest.

Slightly smal­ler than the state of Mary­land, the coun­try has just four air­ports with paved run­ways. Al­bania ranks at mid­level among the world’s na­tions in terms of en­ergy, tele­phone and in­ter­net avail­ab­il­ity.

The Al­bani­an Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton was un­able to of­fer com­ment on Wed­nes­day morn­ing.

Walk­er said the Balkan state could be an “OK” op­tion but its “lower tech­nic­al and se­cur­ity ex­pert­ise” could present prob­lems.

“It seems to me a well de­veloped coun­try is the way to go,” said Walk­er, re­com­mend­ing that a na­tion like Italy take on the ef­fort in­stead. He said it also might make the pro­ject cheap­er if no port im­prove­ments are re­quired or trucks must be brought in, for ex­ample.

The Syr­i­an chem­ic­al-de­struc­tion ef­fort may be split between two or more coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. source, who ad­dressed the mat­ter on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity be­cause of dip­lo­mat­ic sens­it­iv­it­ies. In a di­vi­sion of labor, one na­tion might neut­ral­ize the sar­in com­pon­ents us­ing chem­ic­al hy­dro­lys­is, while an­oth­er na­tion could in­cin­er­ate the mus­tard gas, sev­er­al oth­er ex­perts said.

It is un­clear wheth­er Al­bania’s en­vir­on­ment­al laws might be more per­missive than those of West European na­tions. However, any hint that the de­struc­tion pro­cess could res­ult in tox­ic fumes or ground­wa­ter con­tam­in­a­tion might pose not only a ser­i­ous pub­lic health is­sue but also a polit­ic­al li­ab­il­ity for Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies, as they are shep­herd­ing the ef­fort, Walk­er said.

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