Syria’s Chemical Arms Likely Can Be Exported for Disposal: Expert

Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 24, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

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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