News / Middle East

Destruction of Syria's Chemical Weapons Could Prove Difficult

A survivor from what activists say is a gas attack rests inside a mosque in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus August 21, 2013.
A survivor from what activists say is a gas attack rests inside a mosque in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus August 21, 2013.
VOA News
Chemical weapons experts say that any international effort to secure control of Syria's vast arsenal of nerve agents and then destroy it would be a massive undertaking.

These experts tell VOA it is a mission that could take years to complete. Destroying chemical weapons is difficult under the best of circumstances, and would be significantly more treacherous in Syria while battles rage between forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking to overthrow his government.

The research director at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, Tom Collina, says the wartime obstacles could be daunting - and unprecedented.

"The biggest obstacle is that this is all happening in the middle of civil war. As far as I know, it's never been tried before to actually go and protect and extract weapons of mass destruction in a war zone. So that's the first big challenge. So the second challenge is going in and finding all the sites, securing the sites so that nobody is making off with the stockpiles of weapons that are there," said Collina.

An expert on weapons of mass destruction at George Mason University outside Washington, Gregory Koblentz, voiced doubt that Syria will actually turn over control of its stockpiles of deadly sarin, mustard gas and VX.

"I don't think the Syrian regime is serious about actually turning over all of their chemical weapons, and even if they were to do so in the middle of a civil war would make it virtually impossible for any kind of international group to conduct their work safely and securely. So I don't see this happening anytime soon, if ever," said Koblentz.

Analysts say they believe the Syrian cache of chemical weapons is the third biggest in the world, behind only that held by the United States and Russia, which are destroying their stockpiles. Collina says getting rid of Syria's would be difficult.

He said Russia, or much less likely, the U.S., could take control of the Syrian chemical weapons to destroy them through incineration, but questioned whether "Syria is willing to let the weapons leave the country." Alternatively, Collina said a chemical weapons destruction facility could be built in Syria, "but that will take time."

Collina said the longer-term problem for inspectors is making sure they can determine what the Syrian government has stockpiled. Still, he said the world needs to realize that not all the chemical weapons will be found.

"People need to understand that there never will be 100 percent surety that every last chemical weapon has been found and destroyed. But I frankly think that's not what we are after here. What we're after is to have a high degree of surety that a militarily significant chemical weapons stockpile in Syria no longer exists. And I think we can do that," he said.

Koblentz said the experience of United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War shows how difficult it is to find all of the stockpiled agents.

"After Iraq was defeated in the 1991 Gulf War, they were forced to get rid of all of their nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and a special group called the United Nations Special Commission was created to oversee that process. And even though they're operating under favorable conditions, because they're working in a country that had been defeated at war, they were complying with U.N. Security Council resolution, it still took UNSCOM two years to destroy all of Iraq's declared chemical weapons and took them several more years to actually find things that the Iraqis had been hiding from them," he said.

Collina and Koblentz said the inspectors likely will be checking production records and interviewing scientists at Syria's chemical weapons manufacturing facilities to determine if their accounts verify what nerve agents and the size of the stockpile Syria says it has.

There are known chemical weapons sites in such western Syrian cities as Homs, Hama, Latakia and al-Safir and near the capital, Damascus, but some of the agents could be hidden throughout the country.

Syria last year confirmed possession of unconventional weapons, but has never given an inventory of its stockpile. Damascus has never signed a global treaty banning the storage of chemical weapons, but is a signatory to a 1925 treaty prohibiting their use.

Syria's chemical agents are both debilitating and deadly.  Sarin can contaminate food and water, while mustard gas inflicts chemical burns and VX is the most toxic of all nerve agents, poisoning through the skin.

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