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

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More