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

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

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