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.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry (left) testifies on Capitol Hill on Sept. 10 as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens. President Obama has asked Secretary Kerry to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to work on an international plan to secure Syria's chemical weapons.

The blatant use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces requires a strong international response. A limited military strike as laid out by President Obama in his speech to the nation last night remains an important option of last resort. Another even more effective option is for the international community to secure and destroy Syria’s sizeable cache of these weapons, a possibility that suddenly surfaced this week when it was strongly pushed by Russia. This, too, is doable – though very difficult.

The raging civil war makes the work of weapons inspectors more challenging. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has not been forthcoming about even possessing chemical weapons, which are strewn around the country, and Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Diplomatic hurdles to a deal abound. Such obstacles would have to be overcome to effectively control and destroy these horrific weapons. But that’s not impossible. Here’s how such a plan could work.  

First, Mr. Assad would have to pledge to immediately accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and declare his chemical stockpiles, production facilities, and related laboratories as required under the treaty. This would not only help to reassure the international community, it would provide a legal framework and road map for how to secure these weapons of mass destruction.

Immediately thereafter, Assad would have to allow inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the treaty, to visit all sites under an agreed timetable to inventory and secure the munitions and facilities. The organization’s required schedule for this is typically 60-90 days, but given the current circumstances, these steps can and should be accelerated and could be done in just a few weeks.

Syria’s pledge to join the Chemical Weapons Convention should be accompanied by a UN Security Council resolution that:

  • Condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
  • Forbids further use of chemical weapons under any circumstances.
  • Demands that Syria immediately sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, declare its stockpile, and allow inspectors immediate access to and control of all chemical weapons storage and production sites.
  • Calls upon all other states that have not yet joined the convention – Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, and South Sudan – to do so immediately.

In addition, the plan for international control of Syria’s chemical stockpiles would require an effective enforcement mechanism. As the Obama administration has noted, Russia’s pursuit and Syria’s acceptance of the concept in principle have only come after the threat of the use of force. In order to ensure that Syria fully implements its commitments, the Security Council would likely have to agree that “serious action” by council members, including the use of force, would be warranted if there are flagrant violations by Assad.

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.

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.

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