The chemical weapons trail: Inside the mission to destroy Syria's arsenal

The international effort to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile is unprecedented for its tight deadline and dangerous security situation. 

Bilal Hussein/AP
A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Tuesday.

For more than 15 years, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has quietly and methodically destroyed hundreds of tons of unwanted chemical munitions left over from the cold war or surrendered by states seeking international goodwill.

But now the little-known Netherlands-based organization is in the glare of international publicity as it takes the lead in an unprecedented crash program to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal in the middle of a civil war and on an ambitious nine-month deadline.

"It's the ultimate example of building a plane and flying it at the same time," says Michael Luhan, OPCW's spokesman. "But ... the plane has lifted off, and we've got our game plan set for rotating in and out of Syria in the next month."

Dozens of weapons inspectors have arrived in Damascus, Syria, for the opening phase of the verification process. They face a daunting challenge, given the suspected scale of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the tight time frame, and the dangers of operating amid a bitter civil war that has left 110,000 people dead.

A year ago, details of Syria's long-suspected chemical weapons program were shrouded in mystery. But in the past 12 months the Syrian opposition and human rights groups have lodged numerous accusations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons against his domestic enemies, and information has begun to seep out.

The Aug. 21 sarin gas attack against rebel-held areas of Damascus – the deadliest poison gas attack globally in 25 years, with a death toll of more than 1,000 people – set in motion a fast-moving chain of events. Blaming the Assad regime for the attack, the United States attempted to rally support for a campaign of airstrikes against the Syrian military. The attack, which seemed imminent, was put off only after the US and Russia reached a deal in which Syria would give up its chemical weapons arsenal for destruction.

On Sept. 14 Syria formally applied for membership in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international arms control agreement, and five days later it handed over an initial, relatively comprehensive inventory of its chemical arsenal.

"The US told us that on a [scale of A to E] this inventory would be B+," Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told Russia's Channel One television.

Clinching the process, last week the OPCW issued a decree and the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution detailing the procedures to achieve the total eradication of Syria's chemical arsenal and production facilities by July 1, 2014.

Syria had until Oct. 4 to hand over an inventory of its entire arsenal, including information on military code names, delivery munitions, and locations of facilities for production, mixing, research and development, and storage.

Syria is estimated to have about 1,000 tons of chemical agents, including mustard gas, a blistering agent, and the nerve agents sarin and VX. It has an estimated four production facilities – one near Homs, another on the northern coast near Latakia, one just south of Hama, and the largest, the As-Safira facility, southeast of Aleppo. (See map on opposite page.) The number of storage facilities containing chemical agents and munitions is estimated at 45.

Monumental task

The OPCW inspectors are on a tight time frame. The verification process began Oct. 1, when a 20-person team arrived in Damascus to establish channels with Syrian authorities and do preliminary surveillance of weapons sites.

The inspectors have until Oct. 27 to check all chemical weapons program facilities, meaning they will have to visit more than two sites a day if they wish to meet the OPCW's deadline. Furthermore, all four chemical production sites must be destroyed by Nov. 1.

Funding for the weapons eradication effort is not expected to be a problem, even though the UN refugee agency and the International Committee of the Red Cross have struggled to round up adequate funding for more than 2 million Syrian refugees.

"The offers of voluntary contributions from states are coming in thick and fast," Mr. Luhan says. "We expect there will be pretty robust support for this kind of mission." Even at "peak surge strength," there are likely to be fewer than 100 inspectors, he says.

Charles Duelfer, a former top official with the UN Special Commission on Iraq, set up after the 1991 Gulf War to monitor and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, estimated that some 75 people would be required for a mission of this scale and duration. Fifteen people would handle transport and communications, leaving four teams of 15 each to conduct the inspections on the ground, he says.

The teams will catalog munitions and chemical agents and check them off against the inventory supplied by the Syrian authorities.

"The important thing is to determine contents of a facility, assess the possibility for diversion – and take steps to minimize this risk – and document destruction operations," says John Hart, the head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Chemical agent containers, precursor materials, and munitions filled with poison gas will be tagged and photographed, and surveillance cameras could be installed to provide additional security. Once the site has been surveyed, it could be sealed pending a decision on how to destroy the chemical weapons.

It promises to be a laborious process.

"It's a lot to do, and it's a lot of detailed work and accounting, but it is doable," Mr. Duelfer says.

The trust issue

Syrian authorities have assured the UN and the OPCW that they will fully comply, but there is concern Syria may seek to hide some of its arsenal.

The OPCW's task is to catalog and destroy chemical weapons turned over by a signatory to the CWC; it does not have the latitude to conduct additional investigations if it suspects the host nation has not disclosed its full arsenal.

"Past state behavior and simple logic would suggest that the Assad regime will try to keep some of its chemical warfare agents. Thus, the inspectors will likely encounter, whether they are aware of it or not, significant subterfuge," says Charles Blair, a chemical weapons expert and instructor at George Mason and Johns Hopkins Universities formerly with the Federation of American Scientists.

But Russia, a key ally of the Assad regime, has invested its "credibility and prestige" in the process, which places pressure on the Assad regime to cooperate, Duelfer says. "I can only imagine that Lavrov [the Russian foreign minister] made the case and said 'listen guys, your only hope of surviving is to have your international prestige grow while the international prestige of the opposition is decaying' and that can be a pretty important incentive for Bashar al-Assad," he says.

UN Resolution 2118 grants the Security Council the option of taking action under the enforceable Chapter 7 of the UN charter if Syria is deemed to be hindering the process.

Safety in a danger zone

Inspectors' safety will be a chief concern as they catalog 1,000 tons of chemical agents and their delivery systems in less than a month.

"Nothing has been done like this in the middle of a fierce civil war.... So security is the No. 1 issue without a shadow of a doubt," says Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer at Britain's Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Regiment and current chief operating officer of Securebio, a chemical weapons consultancy.

Most of Syria's chemical weapon storage sites are believed to be in areas under the regime's control. But because of the fluid nature of the war, some facilities could fall into contested zones or be overrun by rebel forces.

As the host nation, Syria is responsible for providing security to inspection teams in regime-held areas. If the inspectors need to visit sites under opposition control, the local rebel forces are required to help. But the opposition is unhappy with the eradication program, arguing that it spared the regime a punishing attack by the US and granted it undeserved legitimacy.

"The opposition groups are not terribly keen on the current action and would prefer to have some kinetic involvement from the US and others," says Mr. Bretton-Gordon. "If they decide to create problems for the investigation teams ... then it's going to make an already challenging task even more difficult."

The challenges of destruction

Once the arsenal has been logged and secured, the OPCW will have to decide on the best means of destroying the weapons. In the past, chemical weapons were often simply tossed into the sea. In 1947, Britain and the Soviet Union disposed of an estimated 65,000 tons of German chemical weapons by dumping them into the Baltic Sea, where today the corroding containers pose a health risk to surrounding nations.

The adoption of the CWC in 1997 effectively ended such haphazard practices. Today, the favored destruction methods are incineration, hydrolyzation, and detonation with explosives.

Incineration requires the chemical agent to be drained from the weapon, such as a rocket or artillery shell, and incinerated at temperatures around 2,000 degrees F. Any explosive elements in the shell or missile, as well as the contaminated metal components, are burned in separate furnaces. The released gases are scrubbed with both wet and dry filters before the end product is released into the atmosphere.

Hydrolyzation involves the addition of hot water and caustic agents such as sodium hydroxide, which destroy the toxicity of the chemical agent. The neutralized agent can be burned in an incinerator or treated, similar to sewage water.

In explosive destruction, the chemical-bearing munitions are placed in a reactor and detonated or neutralized with chemical treatment.

"Japan has used this method to clean up its World War II-era conventional and chemical weapons that were left in China," Mr. Blair says.

The bulk of Syria's nerve agents is reportedly unweaponized liquid precursors, which can be treated as normal hazardous industrial products, making any transportation and destruction easier, experts say.

The OPCW can use mobile chemical destruction systems or centralize the stockpile in a safe location in Syria, where it will be destroyed. Several experts say the most practical solution is to transfer the weapons outside Syria, possibly via the Port of Tartus, where Russia has a naval base, for destruction in other countries.

"I think the favored option is to route them out of Syria ... to Russian or US facilities," says Bretton-Gordon. "In that fashion they could be removed from Syria by the middle of next year as decreed by the UN Security Council."

However, the CWC forbids the "transfer, directly or indirectly," of chemical weapons to third parties and also prohibits signatory states from receiving them.

"There is no way they can get around it," says Jean Pascal Zanders, a weapons of mass destruction disarmament expert and consultant who blogs at "Both parts of the transaction, the send and the receiving, are quite explicitly banned."

The limited capacity of mobile systems may not make the July 1, 2014, deadline feasible, especially given that Syria is at war. But transporting the chemical munitions to a centralized location increases the risk of diversion or seizure by armed groups.

Despite the obstacles, the fact that the fate of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile has brought the US and Russia into rare agreement has raised hopes of a possible breakthrough in the conflict.

"People have started talking to each other, and there is a glimmer of hope for perhaps having a [peace negotiation] meeting in November with a view of ending the conflict," Mr. Zanders says. "In that sense it is encouraging in ... seeing a possible end to the war."

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