President Obama's plan to launch a military strike against Syria was unexpectedly put on hold this week, after Russia announced a proposal to place Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons under international control. The Assad regime says it is willing to cooperate with Moscow's plan, offering to open up its stockpiles for inspection and eventual destruction, and agreeing to sign an international ban on chemical weapons.
At first glance, the proposal may seem like a blessing for Obama, who has been urging Congress to authorize a limited strike on Assad's chemical weapons facilities, insisting that the operation would not involve American "boots on the ground." The White House had been struggling to muster support for a strike among a war-weary public, and Russia's intervention appears to at least open the door for a diplomatic solution. But experts say that disarmament won’t be easy, and may require US involvement — and boots — for years to come.
"These are really uncharted waters that we're entering."
"These are really uncharted waters that we're entering," says Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert and consultant who recently worked as a research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. "Not only is Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it is doing so in the middle of a war." Securing and destroying chemical weapons is an arduous task during peacetime, let alone amid a gruesome conflict that has already killed more than 100,000 people.
The precise scope of Syria's chemical arsenal is not publicly known, though it is believed to be substantial. According to US and French intelligence, the Assad regime may have 1,000 metric tons of various chemical agents and nerve gases, including sulfur, mustard gas, and components used to make sarin and VX. These agents are dispersed across between an estimated 30 to 40 storage and production facilities, though recent reports suggest that Assad has begun hiding or relocating the materials in response to this month's developments.
The US and its allies have blamed Assad's forces for an August 21st chemical weapons attack that killed an estimated 1,400 people outside Damascus. Assad has denied the accusations, pinning the strike on the opposition groups looking to overthrow him. The Syrian government has made oblique references to its chemical weapons arsenal in the past, but this week’s announcement of plans to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention marks its boldest acknowledgement thus far.
"It's been taking them decades and they're still not done."
Once Syria signs on to the CWC, it will have one month to provide a comprehensive inventory of its chemical weapons supplies and the facilities used to produce them. A team of international inspectors — likely from the United Nations, G-5, or Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — would then enter the country to verify Syria's declaration, secure its weapons, and work with the regime to set a timeline for their destruction. The CWC also requires that all production facilities be destroyed or converted for non-military purposes, and would hold the Assad government responsible for conducting this transition. Given the unrest in Syria and heightened US concerns over weapons proliferation, many expect the international community to play an outsize role in moving the process forward.
After US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Thursday, US officials said the White House is pushing Syria to accelerate this process, but experts say that controlling and destroying the country's supply will likely take years.
"The US and Russia are still working to get rid of their stockpiles, which are much larger," says Dan Kaszeta, a London-based security consultant and former officer in the US Chemical Corps. "It's been taking them decades and they're still not done."
Chemical weapons are typically destroyed through incineration at high temperatures, or neutralization using chemical agents. Kaszeta says incineration is usually the preferred approach, since neutralization can leave behind toxic wastes, though it presents risks, as well. Mobile incinerators are generally deployed or constructed on-site, which requires time, investment, and security forces.
In theory, inspectors could transport the weapons to a safer location either within or outside Syria, but that would be substantially more dangerous, especially if the OPCW has to contend with warring rebel and government factions. Last month, a team of United Nations inspectors was targeted by sniper fire in Damascus while conducting an investigation into earlier alleged chemical attacks.
Handling such toxic material presents obvious risks to the environment and the inspectors conducting the operation, but that's far from the greatest danger they would face.
"There are risks, but the inspectors are trained for that — it's a professional hazard" Zanders tells The Verge. "The bigger problem is the war."
The majority of Assad's weapons facilities are believed to be located in regime-controlled areas, though some are in contested regions. The ongoing conflict makes it difficult for inspectors to safely move or destroy chemicals on-site, and heightens the risk of attacks from militant groups looking to seize the materials for their own purposes.
"The actual destruction would take considerable time, and I just can’t see that happening in the current environment in Syria."
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, chief operating officer of London-based chemical warfare advisory group SecureBio, says Assad and the rebels would have to agree to a cease-fire if inspectors want to rapidly begin the process of disarmament, as the US has urged. An alternative would be to securely bury them underground until the war is over.
"You could dig a big hole, put the weapons in there, put a concrete plug on top, and come back to it when the situation allows," Bretton-Gordon said in an interview with The Verge. "The actual destruction would take considerable time, and I just can’t see that happening in the current environment in Syria."
Regardless of which tactic is ultimately decided upon, experts say the US and others would almost certainly have to deploy security forces.
"You can't do it without boots on the ground," Kaszeta says. "You need troops to secure the sites — tens of thousands. You effectively need to build a military encampment in the middle of an ongoing war."
"This is not a regime known for its honesty."
Bretton-Gordon says peacekeepers from the UN or a coalition of Western forces would most likely be deployed, though the exact composition of any security team remains unclear. France is pushing the UN Security Council to authorize the use of military force in case Assad does not comply with the terms of the CWC, though Russia and Syria stand in strong opposition to the proposal.
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty involves Syria's motivations for agreeing to hand over its weapons in the first place. Zanders speculates that Assad may be using the opportunity to reassert his autonomy over the country, since agreeing to the CWC implicitly establishes his government as sovereign. Others say that Assad and his Russian allies may simply be looking to buy time or make empty promises in the hopes of averting US intervention.
"They completely denied having chemical weapons until five or six days ago," Kaszeta says. "This is not a regime known for its honesty."
"Whatever [weapons] declaration they make, will it be believable? I suppose it's possible, but people will always be suspicious about whatever they say."