Were Syria to agree give up its sizable chemical arsenal, destroying the weapons and verifying that no trace materials or munitions remain would be a highly complicated and dangerous undertaking that likely would take years to finish, the Los Angeles Times reported on Tuesday.
Bashar Assad’s regime has said it is open to surrendering its chemical weapons to the international community in order to avoid a threatened U.S. military strike. However, a specific agreement on the matter is far from being reached.
A major concern of the United States and its allies is making sure that Damascus reveals all of the details of its chemical-weapons program. Those include its processes for acquiring, researching and manufacturing chemical toxins as well as the locations and types of all the munitions used to deliver the agents.
“The Syrians would have to tell us basically everything,” University of Maryland chemical arms specialist Markus Binder told the Times.
Destroying the chemical-warfare materials can be accomplished by incineration or neutralization — a chemical process that renders the toxins no longer dangerous. Both options pose physical risk to the workers handling the bulk agent and chemical-filled munitions, as there could be leakage or accidental explosions. Some materials could be destroyed inside Syria and others could be transported to another country for elimination.
Syria is a not a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention but might agree to accede to the nonproliferation accord under a possible deal to avoid U.S. attacks. The CWC treaty requires that chemical disarmament be overseen by specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — the body that implements the accord — but that the actual elimination work be carried out by the state itself, the Boston Globe reported.
The Arab nation presently does not have the necessary technology and infrastructure to safely destroy its chemical arsenal. Foreign nations such as the United States and Russia, which both have considerable expertise in chemical-arms disarmament, might provide help in this area.
“It’s a gargantuan task for the inspectors to mothball production, install padlocks, inventory the bulk agent as well as the munitions,” Amy Smithson, a chemical-weapons analyst at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told the New York Times. “Then a lot of it has to be destroyed — in a war zone.”
A considerable quantity of foreign-military personnel likely would have to be deployed to Syria to protect the OPCW inspectors as they go about their work, according to analysts.
“We’re talking boots on the ground,” an anonymous onetime U.N. weapons inspector with experience in Iraq said. “We’re not talking about just putting someone at the gate. You have to have layers of security.”
A 2012 estimate by the Defense Department concluded it could take in excess of 75,000 military personnel to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.
“Whichever country would be sent in there to try to get the accountability and do the security, and maybe eventually get to the destruction — they will be a target for someone, for one group or another,” the ex-U.N. inspector said. “Because no matter who you are, you get mortared somewhere by one of the parties” in the Syrian civil war.
A greater number of OPCW weapons inspectors likely would have to be hired.
Another challenge is finding and destroying all of the specialized rockets that were utilized in the Aug. 21 large-scale gas attack in the Damascus suburbs that precipitated threats of a retaliatory U.S. attack. The rockets seem to have been newly built and of a make not previously known about. Thus far, it has not been possible to find out which facility manufactured the weapons and Damascus continues to claim that it has nothing to do with the rockets.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included an error in its initial reference to Syria’s sizable chemical arsenal.
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