Syria: Vetting the Chemical-Weapon Plan

The challenges will be great.

When Secretary Kerry gave Assad a week to give up his chemical weapons arsenal earlier this week, he could not have imagined that it would spark such a proposal from the Russians. Although Russia and the United States have been discussing ways to address the chemical weapons threat for a while, the proposal comes at the right time for a president looking to minimize military involvement in Syria at a time where little could be achieved that way. But what would be involved in implementing such a deal? And are the risks worth it knowing the many hurdles present and the poor chance of success?

Given the difficulty of securing Syria’s chemical weapons, the first, perhaps obvious, step would be to ensure that agreement is reached on an implementation timeline and the practicalities of such a deal. Although the United States, France and the UK are prepared to explore the deal, and Assad and his allies have expressed support for it, agreeing on the exact steps to disarm will not be a walk in the park. There is also little reason to believe in Russia’s good faith in negotiating this deal. After all, it could shift the focus away from air strikes and keep Assad in place a little longer (not that he’s going anywhere at the moment).

Let’s assume a deal has now been agreed upon. The first step is for Assad to declare his chemical weapons stockpiles to the international community, more specifically, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in charge of overseeing the chemical-weapons ban. This is the part that could occur fairly rapidly. After all, Assad knows what he has and where everything is located. The biggest difficulty here is being sure he’s telling the truth. Other than corroborating with Western intelligence findings, there is no way to verify that Assad has declared his entire chemical-weapons stockpile.

Under normal circumstances, following such a declaration, inspectors from the OPCW would be sent in to verify Assad’s holdings. But Syria is not a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is no legal basis for sending their inspectors to a country that has not agreed to the terms of the Convention. One way around this hurdle would be to invite them in or to have the UNSC send them in after states party to the CWC agree to it. Alternatively, the UN could create an alternative group with the mandate to conduct these operations.

Now let’s assume these legal obstacles are dealt with. In order to verify Assad’s stockpiles, inspectors must be sent to Syria. They will have to travel around to the numerous production and storage facilities. Remember Assad has the largest chemical weapons programme in the Middle East and the fourth largest in the world, with estimates ranging from 500-1,000 tons of CW. My IISS colleague, weapons expert Michael Elleman, estimates that approximately one thousand trucks would be needed to transport the weapons to a new storage and destruction depot.

This is perhaps the right time to highlight that they will be doing this in the middle of a war. A conflict involving many parties, with many agendas, some of whom would welcome the arrival of fresh targets.

Once the verification process has ended, the destruction begins. In an ideal world, production plants would be dismantled and stockpiles destroyed by either burning them at very high temperatures in controlled furnaces or adding chemicals to them, rendering them ineffective. Not all production and storage facilities will have a furnace handy nearby. For safety and security reasons, it would also be better to move agents to fewer locations, ideally, all the way out of Syria. But moving chemical precursors is dangerous, let alone weaponized agents. Add to that the violence, the risk of an accident during the move and that some war-weary rebels might quite like to get their hands on these weapons and once again, we’re faced with another significant problem.

Now let’s assume all of those issues are dealt with. Destruction of such a huge capability doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it is more realistic to talk in years than in months. After all, Libya declared its stockpiles to the international community in 2004 and by 2011, when the violence erupted, only half its stockpiles of mustard gas and 40 percent of its chemical precursors were destroyed. And this wasn’t during a war. The U.S. and Russia, the two biggest chemical weapons possessors, were unable to meet the April 2012 deadline for the destruction of their own arsenals (currently at 90 percent and 70 percent of their respective declared stockpiles) more than fifteen years after the process had begun. And once again, none of these countries were in the middle of a war.

Needless to say, this deal looks almost impossible to achieve. But at the end of the day, if such a deal allows us to degrade even a portion of Assad’s chemical-weapons arsenal, then isn’t it worth pursuing?

Dina Esfandiary is a research associate, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme, at The International Institute for Strategic Studies.