WASHINGTON — Most of Syria’s chemical weapons likely can be transported safely out of the country for disposal elsewhere, though it remains to be seen which if any nations voluntarily would allow the agents within their borders, a leading chemical expert said on Wednesday.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is overseeing the destruction of the estimated 1,000 metric tons of chemical-warfare materials held by President Bashar Assad’s regime in civil-war-torn Syria.
The “chances are we’re going to ship them out of Syria,” provided the chemicals are still in precursor form, said Paul Walker, a program director at Green Cross International, which has facilitated the disposal of other nations’ chemical arsenals.
Speaking at an event in Washington, Walker said he expects the Syrian weapons in question have no live agents — meaning none of the chemicals have been mixed together and poured into munitions containing propellants and explosives — and thus can be sent safely to another country for destruction.
“I think the stockpile is probably almost 100 percent precursor chemicals,” Walker told a forum organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Federation of American Scientists.
Damascus agreed in recent weeks to declare its chemical arsenal and to surrender it for disposal as part of a U.N. Security Council-brokered agreement. The deal came about after the United States threatened to carry out reprisal air strikes on the Assad regime as punishment for the Syrian military’s widely assumed sarin gas attack on civilians in August.
It is not publicly known how much of Syria’s arsenal is in precursor or live-agent form. Syria is expected to make its final declaration to The Hague, Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons about the exact contents of its chemical arsenal and their current disposition before next Monday. The declaration when it comes will be classified, Walker said.
OPCW monitors on the ground are wrapping up inspection visits to each of the country’s 23 declared chemical sites, where they are documenting the types of agents and munitions they find. Public statements coming from some European nations in recent days suggest a large-enough amount of the chemicals are in precursor form that the United States is reaching out to foreign nations to see if they would temporarily accept them.
If the chemical-disposal work can take place outside of Syria, it would allow the OPCW monitors overseeing the disposal of chemical-production equipment to leave behind the explosions and bombings from the Syrian civil war, Walker said.
Additionally, moving the bulk chemical agents out of Syria to another location would increase the likelihood of their complete destruction taking place in time to meet an internationally set deadline of mid-2014, he said.
Walker speculated that roughly 70 percent of the bulk chemicals are precursor agents for sarin nerve gas and the other 30 percent are precursor materials for mustard blister agent.
Still up in the air is where the chemicals could be shipped to. Several countries presently are being discussed as potential hosts for the disposal work, including Albania, Belgium, France and Norway.
“It turns out that the United States asked most of Western Europe … whether they would help” by hosting the chemical-disposal work, said Walker, a former House Armed Services Committee staff member. “From my understanding, these are the four countries that didn’t say no. None of them have said yes yet.”
Of those nations, Norway has been sending out the most-positive signals that it might agree to host the demilitarization work, according to Walker. “Norway has not dealt with much of this [chemical-weapons disposal] at all. It has no such capability, but obviously is a very good country, I think, and wants to commit to destruction and help out.”
Denmark also has said it is prepared to help out in whatever way it can with the chemical-demilitarization effort.
Another issue to consider is whether the international-disposal project will have enough resources, in the form of money and trained personnel, to complete the demilitarization program in roughly eight months, said Michael Moodie, a senior specialist in international affairs and defense issues at the Congressional Research Service.
“The dimensions of the program, given the timeline that they have set for themselves, is really quite remarkable and may require a level of resources … that thus far may be underestimated,” Moodie said at the Wednesday gathering.
Walker noted in recent years “there has been heavy pressure by the major funders of OPCW” — including the United States, Japan, Germany and other Western European nations — to scale back the disarmament body’s budget.
The chemical-monitoring and inspections organization — which earlier this month was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — also has had to downsize its staff of inspectors from 200 to 112, according to Walker, who added that 14 new personnel currently are receiving training.
The veteran chemical-weapons specialist estimated it would cost more than $100 million to carry out the Syrian chemical weapons-disposal project.
“There’s no money [in the OPCW budget] for an operation of this nature,” he said.
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