A Russian plan to have international authorities secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons may have persuaded the Obama administration to stand down from its intention to carry out a limited military attack on the Assad regime, but is the plan viable? It would not be the first time a country's arsenal of chemical weapons has been decommissioned; yet, as experience shows, it would not be an easy task.
Locating the stockpiles of chemical weapons (CW) and their production facilities would be the primary and the most difficult challenge as the country is convulsed in a civil war and there's every likelihood the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which denied even having CW until its tacit admission Monday, would try to conceal some of the munitions.
Transporting the CW could become an impossible task if the stockpiles, believed to have been hidden for decades, are found to be rotting. Because of the risk of leakage, the decommissioning of the CW would almost certainly have to take place in Syria.
Destroying the CW, especially the nerve agents Sarin and VX, requires very special facilities that would have to be built. The CW would either be incinerated at extremely high temperatures in special enclosed furnaces, or neutralized with a cocktail of organic compounds, mixed with bitumen, placed in sealed drums and buried deep in the ground.
Both Libya and Albania submitted to international decommissioning of their CW stockpiles in the past decade. But the quantity of munitions in these countries was smaller than Syrian arsenals are believed to be, and the nature of most of the chemical agents there – mustard gas – was simpler and easier to destroy. In Libya's case, nuclear weapons materials also were transported to the United States and kept under guard. Such an approach cannot be taken with Syria's CW, experts say, because of the risk of leakage.
The United States and Russia, may be more apt precedents. Under the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, both submitted to international decommissioning of 40,000 tonnes of CW that each stockpiled, much of it nerve agents. Syria's arsenal of CW is believed to be among the next largest and would require similarly extensive facilities to destroy the material.
Timing and cost
A decade is the best estimate of how long the process would take, and at a cost of between $1-billion (U.S.) and $5-billion.
The facility in Russia took 10 years just to build – it included a special railwayuilt by Canada, to carefully transport the CW about 20 kilometres from where it was stockpiled to the destruction centre. Now, it is taking several years more to neutralize and bury the chemicals.
In the United States, the decommissioning facility has taken more than 10 years to build, and still is not complete. The budget for the CW destruction there has risen to $35-billion from an initial estimate of between $2-billion and $3-billion.
"There's no such thing as a guarantee," says Brian Finlay, an expert on chemical weapons at the Stimson Center, a security-analysis institution in Washington. And that's not only because the Syrians may hide things.
"Because the precursors to the CW are benign chemicals with other legitimate uses," said Mr. Finlay, "you can never be sure that an innocuous cosmetic company, for example, isn't secretly mixing up a new batch of CW."