News / Middle East

Chemical Weapons Inspectors Face Difficult Task in Syria

Ake Sellstrom, head of a United Nations (U.N.) chemical weapons investigation team, sits in a U.N. vehicle as he leaves the hotel where the team is staying, in Damascus Sep. 26, 2013. U.N.
Ake Sellstrom, head of a United Nations (U.N.) chemical weapons investigation team, sits in a U.N. vehicle as he leaves the hotel where the team is staying, in Damascus Sep. 26, 2013. U.N.
Syria has agreed to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal under international supervision.

The emphasis now shifts to the multinational organization responsible for eliminating chemical weapons worldwide.

It is known as “The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” (OPCW), an independent entity which has a working relationship with the United Nations.

​Based in The Hague, it is responsible for implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer or use of chemical weapons. 189 countries are members of the convention and in mid-October, Syria will become one of them.

US, Russia accord

After pressure from Russia and the threat of military action from the United States, Syria agreed to an accord brokered by Washington and Moscow.

How Are Chemical Weapons Destroyed?

  • Chemical agents can be destroyed by incineration or neutralization
  • The U.S. Army has 5 portable units capable of destroying chemical weapons armed with explosives
  • Operators put the weapon in a sealed container and remotely detonate charges to set off the weapon
  • Operators then add chemicals to the sealed container to neutralize the weapon
     
Source: US Army
The agreement calls for international experts to complete initial on-site inspections by November and for the destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of next year.

The OPCW is the organization that will send experts to Syria to oversee the destruction of its chemical weapons.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, says Syria must first guarantee the safety and security of the inspectors.

“There is no way you could bring in divisions of security forces to protect the inspectors. So it has to rely on the Assad government. Fortunately, most of the chemical depots are in areas where they are already under pretty secure control of the regime. But there are some that are in more contested areas, and there you will have to work out some ‘no fire’ agreements with the rebel forces,” Cirincione said.

Inspectors face difficult task

Analysts say once on the ground, the inspectors will go about checking the Syrian declared chemical weapons depots.

Greg Thielmann, an expert on weapons of mass destruction, now with the Arms Control Association, sees one possible concern.

Chemical Weapons Believed to be in Syria

Sarin
  • Man-made nerve agent originally developed as a pesticide
  • Used in 1995 Tokyo subway attack
  • Highly toxic odorless, tasteless, colorless liquid
  • Exposure can be by inhalation, ingestion and skin absorption
  • People can recover with treatment from moderate exposure
     
VX
  • Man-made nerve agent
  • Odorless and tasteless
  • Most potent of all nerve agents
  • Slow to evaporate; can last for days on objects
  • People can be exposed through skin contact or inhalation
  • People can recover with treatment from moderate exposure
     
Mustard Gas
  • Causes blistering of the skin and mucous membranes
  • Sometimes odorless, sometimes smells like garlic, onions or mustard
  • Used in World War One
  • Exposure can be by inhalation, ingestion or skin contact
  • Vapor released in the air can be carried long distances by wind
  • Exposure is not usually fatal

Source: CDC
“One of the problems down the road is going to get a sufficient confidence level that even if you know where the declared inventories are, and you are working your way through, locking down or eliminating those inventories, there will be a nagging suspicion that there may be hidden stockpiles elsewhere," Thielmann said.

He points to an earlier experience. “This happened in Libya, by the way. We thought that we were working well with Gadhafi and in fact had eliminated most of the chemical weapons arsenal that he had. But then after he was overthrown, we ran into additional storage areas of mustard agent we didn’t even know about.”

Confidence is key

Charles Duelfer headed the Iraq Survey Group investigating the extent of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. He says inspectors in Syria will have to make split-second decisions.

“For example: if a weapons inspector says 'I want to go into this facility' to see if there is prohibited materiel there. He may say he needs to be there within five minutes. Well if there is some delay, that weapons inspector has to be able to judge whether this is a delay that is due to natural causes - some guy didn’t show up, or whatever - or is it with malice aforethought. And he should report that to the U.N. Security Council," Duelfer said. "These are the day to day decisions which weapons inspectors and their counterparts, in this case Syria, have to work through. And nobody can do that from New York or any capital - it has to be done on the ground.”

Duelfer said Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal was destroyed within the country and the same could be done in Syria.

Date too optimistic

But Greg Thielmann, with the Arms Control Association, sees another scenario.

“Another thing I think we will have to worry about is if indeed it is decided that the best way to get the chemical weapons out of Syria is to move them to a Syrian port and shipment to Russia that has already existing capabilities to destroy chemical weapons -- moving anything in Syria in the midst of a civil war is going to be difficult. So keeping the agent under control and protecting the people who are assigned to that task will be further complications,” Thielmann said.

Given the potential problems, many analysts say the U.S.-Russia accord's deadline of mid 2014 for destroying all of Syria’s chemical weapons - whether in country or elsewhere - is too optimistic.


Andre de Nesnera

Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

You May Like

Lion Cecil's Killing Sparks 'Canned Hunting' Debate in S. Africa

Conservationists believe incident, which triggered worldwide outrage, will reshape debate about practice in which hunters are allowed to target animals bred for hunting More

Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

Scientists say decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll More

US Urges Taliban to Stay With Afghan Peace Talks

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs