News / Middle East

Experts Doubtful on Syria Chemical Weapons Deal

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during his joint news conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague in London, Sept. 9, 2013.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during his joint news conference with Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague in London, Sept. 9, 2013.
Amid the diplomatic flurry over Russia’s proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control, regional experts are wondering if it’s even possible to carry out a chemical weapons disarmament process during a brutal civil war.
 
Most experts dismiss suggestions that this can be done easily or quickly, and certainly not within the tight timetables being mentioned by some diplomats this week.
 
The proposal gained momentum when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in what seemed like an offhand remark this past week, mentioned chemical weapons disarmament as a possible solution to the Syria impasse. Moscow picked up on the remark almost immediately and offered it as a proposal and the Syrians, again almost immediately, accepted it.
  
With President Obama now pursuing diplomatic efforts to isolate and remove Syria's chemical weapons, experts say the idea just may be workable, if extremely challenging -- and if, of course, President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime is serious about giving up an arsenal that includes hundreds of tons of deadly nerve agents.
 
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Sept. 9, Russia will urge Syria to reach a chemical weapons deal.Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Sept. 9, Russia will urge Syria to reach a chemical weapons deal.
x
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Sept. 9, Russia will urge Syria to reach a chemical weapons deal.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Sept. 9, Russia will urge Syria to reach a chemical weapons deal.
Syrian rebels who have been battling to oust Assad for more than two years have dubbed the disarmament offer a “cheap trick.” The opposition Syrian National Coalition argues that it is a “political maneuver that will lead to pointless procrastination and will cause more death and destruction to the people of Syria.”
 
The White House has also sounded a strong note of doubt, fearing that Assad is engaged in a delaying tactic to avoid U.S. reprisals for the August 21 attack on 11 neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs that, according to U.S. intelligence reports, involved Sarin gas and killed more than 1,400 people.
 
Syria denies attack

The Syrian government says it wasn’t responsible for the attack, claiming variously that it didn’t really happen or that if it did the rebels must be to blame.
 
Independent experts share the White House’s misgivings about the Assad government’s sincerity and warn that it will be difficult, even under ideal circumstances, to come up with an accurate assessment of just how many chemical weapons Syria could deploy. And even if Syria and the Russians agreed on having the weapons physically removed from Syrian territory, the experts say that could take months to accomplish.
 
“We are going to have to think literally on how we are going to do it,” said Hamish Bretton-Gordon, a British chemical warfare expert. “To destroy the weapons in situ in a war zone is probably not going to be the best way of doing it. To stockpile as we did in Iraq might be a way and potentially move the weapons out of the country and destroy them then. It is technically possible.”
 
Bretton-Gordon believes cease-fires for some of the time would have to be agreed while inspections took place, and certainly when the nerve agents, including mustard, Sarin and VX gases, were being transported. Without cease-fires, the danger could be too great for weapons inspectors, most likely drawn from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body overseeing the Chemical Weapons Convention.
 
Much will depend on the Syrians providing full disclosure about a chemical weapons arsenal that until this week the Assad government wouldn’t even officially acknowledge.
 
Car-and-mouse games
 
In Iraq under Saddam Hussein during the 1990s, U.N. inspectors were forced to play a cat-and-mouse game for years trying to discover hidden weapons sites the regime didn’t want them to find. Eventually, the inspectors dismantled the chemical arsenal, but doubts persisted whether all the nerve agents had been collected and destroyed.
 
Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center, believes that so long as the Assad regime is actually willing to give up its chemical weapons, it’s necessary to go ahead despite the apparent chaos in Syria.
 
“This is feasible because the Syrian chemical weapons have been kept under tight central control according to non-Arab intelligence sources I have talked to,” Sayigh said. “They were impressed that the Syrian regime clearly understood what was needed in this regard. It knew how to keep its chemical weapons under tight control, under guard, and well protected.”
 
But Sayigh warns, “There will be concern about a cat-and-mouse situation where the regime may hide weapons. If so, do we end up in this very debilitating situation that arose in Iraq during the sanctions regime where the Americans kept insisting there were further hidden facilities?
 
“We see the perils and pitfalls where we don’t trust either the regime to be telling the truth nor are we sufficiently confident in our own verification abilities,” Sayigh said.
 
Assad’s good will
 
Arms-control expert Timothée Germain, a research fellow at the Paris-based Center for International Security and Arms Control Studies, worries that the whole chemical weapon disarmament process will be “wholly dependent on Assad's good will.” He believes that should there be a deal encompassing the surrender of the Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, its full implementation may prove virtually impossible.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem says Sept. 9, Syria welcomes the Russian chemical weapons proposal.Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem says Sept. 9, Syria welcomes the Russian chemical weapons proposal.
x
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem says Sept. 9, Syria welcomes the Russian chemical weapons proposal.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem says Sept. 9, Syria welcomes the Russian chemical weapons proposal.

Germain says there are two clear practical options for getting rid of the weapons, either for the “control and destruction [of the weapons] to happen within Syria”, which would require a deployment of huge numbers of inspectors, or to “move the arsenal out of the country and proceed to destroy it there.”  The second option was how international inspectors dealt with Libya's nuclear material. Russia would be the most likely country to receive the chemical agents because of its past relations with Syria and its existing infrastructure and equipment needed to destroy the chemical weapons.
 
“Setting up transfer flights out of Damascus in the middle of a civil war, will be complex,” Germain said. “At any rate, it will take months at least to transfer the entire arsenal out.”
 
Syrian rebel leaders worry that If a deal goes ahead, what happens during those months while America’s hand is stayed from retaliating for the August 21 attack. The rebels had been hoping the U.S. would use its cruise missiles to attack Assad’s air force and long-range rocket capabilities. They now believe Assad will increase the tempo of operations against the rebellion, arguing that he press his offensive knowing the U.S. would not attack.

You May Like

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs