How to secure Syria's chemical weapons
President Obama is willing to push for a deal in which the international community would verifiably secure Syria's chemical weapons. That course will be difficult to pursue. But it is doable. Here's what's required.
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Reaching agreement on this framework will be tough. Unfortunately, the UN Security Council has not even issued a press release condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, due to Russian opposition. Syria has to date refused to join the chemical weapons treaty since it was opened for signature in 1993.Skip to next paragraph
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Any Syrian government chemical weapons demilitarization initiative would have to be overseen very carefully in order to make sure Assad is fully declaring all of his stockpiles. The declaration would have to be checked against national intelligence assessments to make sure no depot or stockpile has been overlooked. If any suspected site is omitted, it will be important for a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention to request a “challenge inspection,” and for inspectors to immediately carry out the inspection. Chemical munitions and related facilities would then be placed under high security and regular international inspection.
A longer-term plan for safe and irreversible demilitarization would have to be developed with the help of other states with experience in destroying chemical munitions, such as the United States and Russia. The schedule, cost, and complexity of stockpile destruction can only be determined once a full inventory is completed and inspectors determine how much live and weaponized chemical agent is in the stockpile. Any demilitarization effort would likely have to be undertaken on-site.
Such an operation could potentially last for years, as was the case in 1991 when the Security Council ordered Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to “unconditionally accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless” of its chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles. The United Nations established the UN Special Commission to verify that Iraq complied with these requirements. Those operations turned out to be highly successful.
It would be important to avoid problems regarding chemical weapons elimination in Libya. Strongman Muammar Qaddafi declared his chemical weapons stockpile in 2004, but intentionally omitted another weaponized stockpile. These latter munitions were only discovered and declared after Qaddafi’s death under the new Libyan regime. They are now in the process of verified destruction.
One of the biggest challenges would also be the safety and security of inspectors and the longer-term security of the stockpiles until an adequate destruction program for Syria’s chemical agent stockpiles could be worked out. The construction of munitions demilitarization facilities could take years, and could very well be postponed until the security of workers, operators, and inspectors can be assured.
Achieving international oversight and the verifiable elimination of chemical weapons in Syria through a multilateral, enforceable plan is practical, but will be very difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, recent events show that in a world of strong nonproliferation norms, it is never too late for outlier states, such as Syria, to come into compliance and reduce the threats these weapons pose to their citizens and the rest of the world.
Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of the independent Arms Control Association. Paul F. Walker is director of the Environmental Security and Sustainability Program for Green Cross International and its US national affiliate, Global Green USA.