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

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora