The success of any effort to take control of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons hinges on trust — a quality in short supply between the United States on the one hand, and Syria and its ally Russia on the other.
The United Nations said Thursday that it had received a letter from Syria declaring its intention to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the production, acquisition, stockpiling and transfer of chemical weapons.
“There would have to be some trust in the international community that the Syrian declaration is accurate, and that gives you, immediately, the very first challenge,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program at New York University.
An effort to secure these chemical weapons is complicated further because President Bashar Assad’s regime has moved around its stockpiles of poison gas since the start of the Syrian civil war 2 years ago.
“Data on where these stockpiles might be stored is sometimes based on assumptions so nobody really knows where they are precisely,” said Dieter Rothbacher, a former U.N. weapons inspector who oversaw the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of chemical weapons in Iraq.
Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, believed to be one of the largest in the world, includes sarin gas, mustard gas and the nerve agent VX.
“Any initial information we had [about the locations of these stockpiles] from before the war is probably outdated,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent researcher who specializes in chemical and biological weapons.
Assad stays in office
The Russian plan makes Mr. Assad’s continued presence as president of Syria integral to its success.
“Whatever is going to be proposed in terms of disarmament will have to involve the Syrian government. There is no way we can escape that,” Mr. Zanders said.
“The big question we are going to face once we have a declaration from Syria is how will we know that the Syrian government is not keeping a secret stash of weapons.”
As a former senior policy officer at The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ms. Patel negotiated agreements with the United States and Russia on how to verify the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles and production capabilities. The organization is tasked with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into effect in 1997.
Western intelligence agencies have “a good overview of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, but they don’t know the details of it in a way that you’d have to know in order to have an international control regime,” Ms. Patel said.
In Libya, dictator Moammar Gadhafi disclosed his stockpiles of chemical weapons in 2004 in an attempt to repair his international image. After his ouster in 2011, an undisclosed stash of chemical weapons was discovered.