News / Middle East

US, Russia Face Obstacles in Destroying Syria's Chemical Weapons

Samples brought back by the U.N. chemical weapons inspection team are checked in upon their arrival at The Hague, Netherlands, August 31, 2013.
Samples brought back by the U.N. chemical weapons inspection team are checked in upon their arrival at The Hague, Netherlands, August 31, 2013.
The United States and Russia face significant obstacles in implementing an agreement to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons, regardless of whether the disposal happens inside or outside that war-torn country.

Earlier this month, Washington and Moscow agreed that Syria's estimated 1,000 tons of chemical munitions should be destroyed or removed by the middle of next year. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pledged to cooperate.

Under the plan, inspectors from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would be deployed in Syria by November to supervise the process. But world powers have not agreed or disclosed how it would unfold from there.

Doing the Job in Syria

If those powers decide to destroy the stockpiles within Syria, the process likely would involve sending in specialized mobile units. Building a permanent facility to do that could take a year or more, dragging beyond the mid-2014 date by which the stockpiles are meant to be gone.

Exterior of an explosive destruction system.Exterior of an explosive destruction system.
x
Exterior of an explosive destruction system.
Exterior of an explosive destruction system.
The United States and Russia could provide the necessary equipment. Both powers have more than a decade of experience in destroying their own chemical stockpiles. But neither has said if it would join a Syria-based operation.

The United States has two types of mobile units for destroying chemical weapons - an Explosive Destruction System (EDS) that neutralizes munitions containing chemical agents, and a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) that neutralizes the chemical agents and their precursors in bulk.

The U.S. military has built five EDS units capable of handling several munitions at a time. It also unveiled its first FDHS unit in June, saying the system is "designed for worldwide deployment with operational capability within 10 days of arriving on site."

Problems with the Syria Option

U.S. counterproliferation analyst Al Mauroni told VOA that using U.S. Army EDS units to destroy munitions inside Syria would be slow.

"I don't think they could complete it within six months," he said.

Interior of an explosive destruction system.Interior of an explosive destruction system.
x
Interior of an explosive destruction system.
Interior of an explosive destruction system.
Mauroni is director of the Alabama-based U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center, which educates Air Force leaders about how to deal with weapons of mass destruction.

He said the United States sent a mobile unit to Albania in 2006 to destroy that nation's 16-ton chemical stockpile at the request of Tirana.

"It took them about a year to do that," said Mauroni. "So if Syria has 1,000 tons, you can see that it probably cannot be done within a year."

Syria's two-year civil war also could make it hard for any foreign personnel and equipment to operate in the country.

In an interview broadcast Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told China's CCTV network that rebels fighting to overthrow him could stop foreign teams from reaching government-run chemical sites.

American University international relations professor Sharon Weiner said blocked access would not be the only risk.

"I could imagine that each of the partisans in that civil war would have a different take on whether or not you target or protect the people trying to destroy these weapons," Weiner said. "So those people would get caught up in that larger conflict."

Destroying the Stockpiles Overseas

To avoid such problems, world powers could send Syria's chemical weapons to facilities in the United States and Russia for quicker and safer handling.

Layout of a deployable hydrolysis system site.Layout of a deployable hydrolysis system site.
x
Layout of a deployable hydrolysis system site.
Layout of a deployable hydrolysis system site.
The United States has two facilities where it plans to dispose of its remaining munitions in the coming years. One is undergoing testing in Colorado, while the other is under construction in Kentucky.

Russia is destroying its remaining stockpile at four facilities in the regions of Bryansk, Kirov,  Kurgan and Penza. Construction of a fifth complex in the Kizner region is nearing completion.

But the option of using those facilities also presents dilemmas. Neither Washington nor Moscow has confirmed whether it would agree to bring Syrian stockpiles into its territory.

Challenges to the Overseas Option

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) also prohibits the "transfer, directly or indirectly, of chemical weapons to anyone." Mauroni said OPCW would have to make an exception to its rules to allow such weapons to be taken out of Syria.

Transporting the chemical munitions would be another challenge. Mauroni said he doubts anyone would want to fly with such hazardous cargo, making ground vehicles a more likely mode of transport.

Map of Chemical Weapons Destruction Facilities


The U.S. military used that method before. In 1990, it packed up a U.S. chemical stockpile near Clausen, Germany, put the munitions onto trucks and drove them to the German port of Nordenham.

From there, the U.S. military shipped the munitions to Johnston Atoll in the Pacific, where they were destroyed. The CWC ban on transferring such munitions had not yet taken effect.

"So, is it safe to take them by road? Absolutely," Mauroni said. "Transporting them by ocean, as long as there are no storms, also is not a problem."

Cost and Verification Issues

If world powers can agree on where to destroy Syria's chemical weapons, they still face uncertainties in how to pay for and verify the process.

President Assad has said he believes it would cost $1 billion. Weiner said it is too early to be sure.

"The cost depends on factors like how far you have to transport the weapons and how much you have to pay to protect the people who are destroying them," she said. "Anyone who tries to give a realistic estimation right now just doesn't have the information they need to do that."

In order to verify the complete removal of Syria's stockpiles, OPCW needs to be sure the Assad government truthfully declared what it had. Any OPCW member that suspects Syria is hiding something can order a "challenge inspection" that Syrian authorities would have no right to refuse.

Weiner said the United States and Russia also would have to overcome their suspicions of each other.

"I can imagine the Americans wanting to be present to watch the disposal in Russia and vice versa," she said. "The Americans and Russians have a history from the Cold War of always wanting to know what each other was doing. So there is a lack of trust there."

US, Russia Face Obstacles in Destroying Syria's Chemical Weaponsi
X
September 24, 2013 3:15 AM
The United States and Russia face significant obstacles in implementing an agreement to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons, regardless of whether the disposal happens inside or outside that war-torn country.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
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.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
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 US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

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