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
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
Obama Grants 111 More Commutations
7 hours ago

In a release Tuesday afternoon, the White House announced that President Obama has commuted and/or reduced the sentences of another 111 convicted criminals, mostly convicted of drug possession or trafficking. About 35 were serving life sentences.

Grassley Open to Lame Duck Hearings on Garland
8 hours ago

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Monday he'd now be willing to hold a hearing on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in a lame-duck session of Congress. While he said he wouldn't push for it, he said if "Hillary Clinton wins the White House, and a majority of senators convinced him to do so," he would soften his previous opposition.

Rubio Can’t Guarantee He’ll Serve a Full Term
10 hours ago

We can call this the anti-Sherman-esque statement: If reelected, Marco Rubio ... might serve his whole term. Or he might not. The senator, who initially said he wouldn't run for a second term this year, now tells CNN that if reelected, he wouldn't necessarily serve all six years. “No one can make that commitment because you don’t know what the future is gonna hold in your life, personally or politically,” he said, before adding that he's prepared to make his Senate seat the last political office he ever holds.

Obama to Raise Multiple Issues in Meeting With Philippines Prez
10 hours ago

Since Rodrigo Duterte took over as president of the Philippines in June, he has made a serious of controversial statements and launched a war on drugs that has led to nearly 2000 deaths. He called the US ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, "a gay son of a bitch." Next week, President Obama will meet with President Duterte at the East Asia Summit in Laos, where he " will raise concerns about some of the recent statements from the president of the Philippines," according to White House Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes.

Conservatives Preparing ‘Dry Run’ for Constitutional Convention
10 hours ago

The Convention of States Project, which seeks to force a constitutional convention under Article V of the Constitution, will hold a "dry run" in Colonial Williamsburg starting Sept. 21. "Several states have already followed the process in Article V to endorse the convention." Thirty-four are required to call an actual convention. "The dry run in Williamsburg is meant to show how one would work and focus on the changes and potential constitutional amendments that would be proposed."