US-Russia Syria deal: Challenges to controlling Assad’s chemical weapons

The deal worked out between the US and Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons appears to be an important diplomatic breakthrough. But huge diplomatic and technical obstacles remain.

Martial Trezzini/Keystone/AP
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday. Kerry and Lavrov said they have reached an agreement on a framework for Syria to destroy all of its chemical weapons.

The deal worked out between the United States and Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons appears to be an important diplomatic breakthrough.

It follows two weeks of military threats and naval maneuverings (by the US), resistance to putting much pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad (Russia), a distracting discussion about American “exceptionalism” (Russian President Vladimir Putin), and a US Congress dragged into the issue by a president trying to navigate around his own “red line” for military action in the face of mounting evidence that the Assad regime killed hundreds of Syrians with poison gas.

In retrospect, the real breakthrough came earlier this week when Syria – pressured by the threat of US military attack – at long last acknowledged that it in fact possesses chemical weapons, although it still blames rebel groups for the Aug. 21 chemical attack that the US says killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

That acknowledgement by Damascus of its chemical arsenal opened the way for the agreement announced Saturday in Geneva by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which lays out a path and a time frame for removing or destroying all of Syria’s chemical weapons and equipment in a year’s time.

The essence of the two-page “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” agreed to by Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov is in these three sentences:

“The United States and the Russian Federation expect Syria to submit, within a week, a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.

“We set ambitious goals for the removal and destruction of all categories of CW related materials and equipment with the objective of completing such removal and destruction in the first half of 2014.

“The United States and the Russian Federation have further decided that to achieve accountability for their chemical weapons, the Syrians must provide the OPCW [the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the Chemical Weapons Convention], the UN, and other supporting personnel with the immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites in Syria.”

“Actions will matter more than words,” Kerry said at a press conference in Geneva Saturday. “We have committed here to a standard that says ‘verify and verify.’”

Major diplomatic hurdles remain, including UN Security Council debate over how much pressure the world body is willing to place on Assad.
 
 Even assuming UN approval, any “comprehensive listing,” scrutiny by outside inspectors that is “immediate and unfettered,” and the complete “removal and destruction” of Syria’s chemical stocks in no more than 12 months would be extremely difficult to achieve.

Three decades after the US started destroying its own chemical weapons, the nation's stockpile stands at more than 3,000 tons – about three times what US officials now says Syrian President Bashar Assad controls. While the US has made significant progress eradicating 90 percent of the 31,500 tons it once possessed, the military doesn't expect to complete destruction until 2023, the Associated Press reports.

The two basic destruction methods – chemical neutralization and incineration – both require specialized facilities, according to the AP. Using incineration, chemicals must be heated to thousands of degrees. Decades-old storage containers can be leaky and tough to handle. And destruction produces highly hazardous waste that must be carefully stored.

US, Israeli, and other intelligence services estimate that Syria has about 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons and precursors.

Meanwhile, spy satellites and other intelligence sources confirm that the Assad regime has been dispersing its chemical stocks, equipment, and personnel around the country – to as many as 50 sites, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"We know a lot less than we did six months ago about where the chemical weapons are," one official told the newspaper.

Although the CIA has been training some rebel groups as well as providing light weapons, rebel leaders are not happy with any international deal on chemical weapons that appears to give legitimacy to the Assad regime. And they point out that such weapons of mass destruction – horrific and indiscriminate as they are – have played a very small part in a two-year civil war that is estimated to have killed more than 100,000 people and made refugees of hundreds of thousands more.

"The regime has been killing people for more than two years with all types of weapons,” an opposition activist in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus told Reuters. “The most important point is the act of killing, no matter what is the weapon.”

There’s been no official reaction yet by Syria to the Kerry-Lavrov deal.

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