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

Sambisa Forest Stands Between Nigeria, Victory Over Boko Haram

Military takes back nearly all towns, villages in northeast, except for massive expanse of forest that spreads thousands of square kilometers over several states More

Islamic State Recruiting Stokes Fears for Parents in Georgia

Chechens are a notable part of Islamic State's gains in Syria and Iraq, and analysts fear what might happen if those fighters return to the Caucasus More

Yarmouk Camp Becomes Distant Memory for Palestinian Diaspora

Once thriving capital of Palestinian diaspora, after siege by Syrian government forces and Islamic State group, camp becomes 'deepest circle of hell' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'i
X
Sharon Behn
April 21, 2015 9:18 PM
A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten. Sharon Behn reports on the politics of the word genocide on the 100th anniversary of the events.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
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.
Video

Video German Program Helps Migrants Overcome Traumatic Experience at Sea

Migrants fleeing poverty and violence in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia risk life and limb to reach safety in Europe. Those who have made it to European shores are traumatized by the experience. A program in Germany helps survivors overcome the trauma by giving a new perspective to their catastrophic experience. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs