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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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
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

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

Turkish Law Gives Spy Agency Controversial Powers

Parliament approves legislation to bolster powers of intelligence service, which government claims is necessary to modernize and deal with new threats Turkey faces More

Video Face of American Farmer Changing

Average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Face of American Farmer is Changingi
X
Mike Osborne
April 18, 2014
The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid