News / Middle East

Destroying Syria’s Chemical Stockpiles a Costly, Lengthy Process

FILE - Giant containment cylinders used to move deadly chemical weapons from storage igloos to an incinerator inside the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Oregon, June 8, 2004
FILE - Giant containment cylinders used to move deadly chemical weapons from storage igloos to an incinerator inside the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Oregon, June 8, 2004
Cecily Hilleary
President Barack Obama is holding off on a decision to attack Syria so he can explore a negotiated settlement on securing and destroying the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons. 

Twice in recent years - in Iraq and in Libya - the U.S. and its allies have dismantled and destroyed chemical weapons programs, but never in the middle of a war.
But Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, says the experience gained in Iraq and Libya shows that dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program is feasible, even during armed conflict.

Daryl G. KimballDaryl G. Kimball
x
Daryl G. Kimball
Daryl G. Kimball
“However, the situation in Syria is different in some ways,” Kimball said.  “It’s going to be more challenging to survey these sites, secure these sites, verify the Syrian government’s declaration about stockpiles, the volume, the types, the locations.” 

But if the inspectors—either from the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW] or named by the U.N.—have access to personnel and records, they can do their job well enough to secure these stockpiles and deny the Assad government access, he said.

And that would insure, according to Kimball, that “after the hostilities end, these very dangerous stockpiles don’t fall into other dangerous hands.”

So assuming Syria offers the access it has promised, then what?

First, the Assad government would need to sign the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the arms control agreement that prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.  Within two or three weeks after that, Syria would need to fully declare its chemical weapons inventory. 

“And then they need to immediately allow inspectors from the OPCW or the U.N. team led by Dr. [Ake] Sellström to inspect the facilities,” Kimball said, “to verify the declaration, to make sure that it’s complete and accurate, and to secure the sites and effectively take control so that the chemical agents don’t leave the facilities, and the facilities are not compromised by outside threats.”

Kimball says these are the most important priorities.

“The task of verifiable destruction would be something to be conducted at a later stage, depending on the situation on the ground and the status of the conflict,” he said.

Chemical weapons are difficult to dispose of - they either have to be incinerated or neutralized with other chemical agents. That takes time, and it also takes special facilities.

Destroying Chemical Agents

Protective suits hang ready to be donned June 8, 2004, by workers handling deadly nerve agents inside the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Ore., completed in 2001.Protective suits hang ready to be donned June 8, 2004, by workers handling deadly nerve agents inside the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Ore., completed in 2001.
x
Protective suits hang ready to be donned June 8, 2004, by workers handling deadly nerve agents inside the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Ore., completed in 2001.
Protective suits hang ready to be donned June 8, 2004, by workers handling deadly nerve agents inside the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility outside Hermiston, Ore., completed in 2001.
Decades ago, the United States and Russia destroyed its chemical weapons by burying them, burning them in open-air pits, or dumping them in the ocean. Because of the obvious risk to human health and the environment, the CWC put an end to these practices in 1992.  These days the United States and Russia destroy chemical weapons either by burning them at high temperatures or by neutralizing them with water and other agents.

Liquid chemical agents are burned in a furnace at a temperature of roughtly 1,100 C, about as hot as molten lava. At that temperature, the actual burning of the chemical agent would take only seconds. 

Chemicals contained in bombs or artillery shells are disassembled by robots, and the liquid chemical agent is drained and sent to be incinerated.  Meanwhile, metal parts are fed into a separate furnace and melted.  This ensures that any residual chemicals are also destroyed.  
 
Some toxic chemicals such as mustard gas can be destroyed by neutralizing them with either hot water or a combination of hot water and sodium hydroxide—a process known as hydrolysis. This process gives off a byproduct, hydrolysate, which is then treated separately.

Both methods would require the construction of an additional facility near the storage sites or at some central location for the incineration or the neutralization of the chemical agents.

“These facilities don’t exist in Syria today,” Kimball said.

It is a costly proposition. As a general rule, it costs 10 times more to destroy chemical weapons than to produce them. According to one 1996 assessment, the cost of dismantling, storing and destroying U.S. chemical weapons was $11-15 billion.
 
The extremely lethal nerve agent VX sits stored in 1,269 steel containers at the Newport Chemical Depot in western Indiana Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1997. Stored since 1969, the military is working on a plan to destroy the agent listed as the deadliest substanceThe extremely lethal nerve agent VX sits stored in 1,269 steel containers at the Newport Chemical Depot in western Indiana Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1997. Stored since 1969, the military is working on a plan to destroy the agent listed as the deadliest substance
x
The extremely lethal nerve agent VX sits stored in 1,269 steel containers at the Newport Chemical Depot in western Indiana Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1997. Stored since 1969, the military is working on a plan to destroy the agent listed as the deadliest substance
The extremely lethal nerve agent VX sits stored in 1,269 steel containers at the Newport Chemical Depot in western Indiana Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1997. Stored since 1969, the military is working on a plan to destroy the agent listed as the deadliest substance
Environmental clean-up would run another $15-20 billion.  U.S. stockpiles of mustard gas, VX and Sarin were stored at only a few facilities, but Syria has weapons stored at an estimated 40 locations across the country. 
 
Doing the math, it could take years to destroy what has been billed as the third largest chemical weapons arsenal after Russia and the United States – and America has been at it for more than 15 years.
 
Ensuring Inspectors’ Safety
 
It has been suggested by some experts that it would be impossible to guarantee the safety of a weapons inspection and disposal team while fighting is underway in Syria, but Kimball disagrees.

“Syria’s chemical arsenals are probably the most secure areas within the government-controlled territory today because these are their most valuable and sensitive military assets,” Kimball said, “and so the Syrian government can most likely ensure the basic safety of the inspection teams looking at these facilities.” 

That said, there are still too many unknowns to put an exact timetable on the process, says Kimball.  And there is still no guarantee that the Syrian government will really be willing to comply with the exacting demands that would be placed on it by the international community.

You May Like

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' 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.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs