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

Obama: I Will Do 'Everything I Can' to Close Guantanamo

US president says prison continues 'to inspire jihadists and extremists around the world' More

Sierra Leone Educates on Safe Ebola Burials

Also, country is improving at rapid response to isolated outbreaks, but health workers need to be even faster, officials say More

Religion Aside, Christmas Gains Popularity in Communist Vietnam

Increasingly wealthy Vietnamese embrace holiday due to its non-religious glamor, commercial appeal 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.
US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubansi
X
Sharon Behn
December 19, 2014 9:34 PM
For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.

All About America

AppleAndroid