- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2013

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.

Syria’s willingness to turn over its chemical weapons under a plan proposed by Russia marks the first time that the regime has acknowledged it has these stockpiles.

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“Any initial information we had [about the locations of these stockpiles] from before the war is probably outdated,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent researcher who specializes in chemical and biological weapons.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.

The leader of the military wing of the Syrian opposition National Coalition, meanwhile, rejected the Russian chemical weapons proposal and called for the perpetrators of a suspected chemical weapons attack last month to be put on trial.

“We call upon the international community, not only to withdraw the chemical weapons that were the tool of the crime but to hold accountable those who committed the crime in front of the International Criminal Court,” said Gen. Salim Idriss, who heads the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.

The rebels’ pleas for U.S. arms gained urgency after the Aug. 21 attack in the outskirts of Damascus that the Obama administration has blamed on the Assad regime. More than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children, were killed in the attack, according to Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

U.S. arming rebels

The U.S. has started arming the rebels, according to U.S. officials.

In June, President Obama authorized military assistance to the Supreme Military Council after determining that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.

“The expansion of assistance has been aimed at strengthening the cohesion of the opposition, and the effectiveness of the [Supreme Military Council] on the ground and their efforts to defend themselves against a repressive regime that has shown no boundaries and [shown] its willingness to kill civilians,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

“It’s important to note that both the political and the military opposition are and will be receiving this assistance,” she added.

U.N. inspectors who collected physical and biological samples from the scene of the Aug. 21 attack are expected to present their report to the United Nations on Monday.

Ms. Patel said the attack exposed just how little the world knows about Syria’s chemical weapons.

“The kinds of munitions that were used in the attack on the Damascus suburbs, according to the reporting, are munitions that had never been seen before. Somebody obviously managed to develop munitions of a kind that we didn’t know that they have,” she said.

“You can do a lot of damage with relatively small amounts of chemical weapons, so what is to stop Syria from siphoning off some piece of its stockpile and sneaking it off to some storage location that it doesn’t disclose?”

Any process that involves taking custody of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and eventually destroying them could take months, if not years.

Inspectors will have to locate, seal and safeguard the stockpiles — a task that has never been attempted in a war zone. Facilities will have to be built to destroy these stockpiles in a way that is safe and irreversible.

“In Iraq, it took years to find out the true story behind the weapons of mass destruction,” said Mr. Rothbacher, who has trained some members of the U.N. team that just returned from Syria and co-owns Hotzone Solutions, a consulting firm in the Netherlands.

“It might take months or even years, but at this point there is no better option.”

Safety of the inspectors also will be a top concern. U.N. inspectors came under sniper fire when they first tried to visit the scene of the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus last month.

“There has to be some sort of cease-fire; otherwise, this is not going to happen,” Mr. Rothbacher said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide