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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

US Urges Restraint in Hong Kong Protests

Protesters angered by Beijing's decision to only approve candidates that it sanctions for Hong Kong's leadership elections in 2017 More

Archive of Forgotten UCLA Speeches Offers Snapshot of History

Recordings of prominent voices in social change, politics, science and literature from 1960s, early 1970s now available on YouTube 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.
Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenyai
X
Gabe Joselow
September 29, 2014 6:20 PM
Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Video

Video Reconstruction? What Reconstruction? Life After War in Gaza

It’s been a month since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a ceasefire to end 52 days of an air and tank war that left 60,000 homes in Gaza damaged or destroyed and 110,000 homeless. Sharon Behn reports that lack of reconstruction is leading to despair.
Video

Video US, Saudi Arabia and UAE Hit Islamic State's Oil Revenue

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bombed oil facilities operated by Islamic State militants in Syria. It was a truly collaborative effort, with the two Arab countries dropping the majority of the bombs. The 12 refineries targeted were estimated to generate as much as $2 million per day for the terrorist group. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has the story.
Video

Video Russia's Food Sanctions Raise Price Worries, Hopes for Domestic Production

Russia retaliated against Western sanctions imposed for its actions in Ukraine by halting food imports from the West. The temporary import ban on food from Australia, the European Union, Norway and North America has Russian consumers concerned that they could face a sharp increase in food prices. But in an ironic twist, the restrictions aimed at the Kremlin have made Russia's domestic food producers hopeful this can boost their business. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid