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

China’s Influence Grows With New Infrastructure Bank

Multibillion-dollar China-backed and BRICS-supported Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank seen as possible challenger to such lenders as IMF, World Bank More

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

Rabbi Michel Serfaty makes the rounds in his friendship bus to encourage dialogue and break down barriers between the two groups More

Post-deal Iran Leaders Need 'Economic Momentum' to Solidify

Economists say deal could inject more than $100 billion into coffers - not enough to entirely rescue ailing economy - but maybe adequate to create 'economic momentum' 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 Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impacti
X
Michael Bowman
June 28, 2015 10:05 PM
Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Chemical-Sniffing Technology Fights Australia's Graffiti Vandals

Cities and towns all over the world spend huge amounts of resources battling graffiti writers who deface buildings, public transport vehicles and even monuments. Authorities in Sydney, Australia, hope a new chemical-sniffing technology finally will stop vandals from scribbling on walls in the passenger areas of commuter trains. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Cambodia Struggling to Curb Child Labor

Earlier this year a United Nations report found 10 percent of Cambodian children aged 7-14 are working – one of the highest rates in the region – and said one in four children in that age bracket are forced to quit school to help their families. Although the child labor rate has dropped over the past decade, Cambodia has a lot more to do – including keeping more children in school. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.

VOA Blogs