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

  • 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
  • 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.

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