Getting Serious About Chemical Weapons

Published September 20, 2013
By Patricia Taft, Jacob Grunberger
Fund for Peace - Global Square Blog
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With dueling opinion pieces gracing the pages of the American and Russian press by presidents and senators, and months of strategizing, vacillating, and handwringing, the crisis over the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a problem that seems to be going nowhere meaningful fast. The genesis of the latest crisis was the August 21, 2013 series of missile strikes on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, a neighborhood suspected of harboring militant forces opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Soon after, videos and images began to surface depicting dead civilians, including children, who appeared to bear no signs of injuries resulting from explosives or conventional weapons fire. Within two weeks of the purported deployment of chemical weapons against civilians, the U.S. declassified an assessment of the attack stating that a preliminary estimate confirmed 1,429 killed from exposure to lethal chemicals banned by an overwhelming majority of states. The use of chemical weapons, first deployed in World War I and later used in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and the Aum Shinrikyo subway attack in Tokyo, has come to symbolize one of the more grotesque and inhumane manifestations of modern warfare due to their indiscriminate killing capacity and ability to cause painful, drawn-out symptoms prior to death.

Following the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria, an infamous “red line” set by President Obama a year prior seemed to have certainly been crossed. As a result, the U.S. has found itself in the midst of a complex and frustrating debate over what must be done to address the blatant violation of the ban on the use of chemical weapons in warfare. Unfortunately, as the unfolding crisis has demonstrated, the answers are neither simple nor amenable to quick solutions or punitive action under international law. In this morass, the United States and Russia seem to have settled on a plan that calls for Syria to accede the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which attempts to eliminate the stockpiling, transfer or use of chemical weapons by member states. Under the agreement struck by the U.S. and Russia, Syria would agree to a forfeiture of its chemical weapons and their wholesale destruction. While the long-term merits of this plan are debatable, it may well currently be the best and only option short of military engagement, which both the American public as well as our international allies have shown great distaste for. However, what is being given limited attention in this whole grand plan is how extremely difficult it is to dispose of chemical weapons.

The process of destroying chemical weapons entails many steps that include breaking down the weapons, disposing of highly toxic agents, and thoroughly cleaning the decommissioning facilities in order to protect both the individuals and environment from exposure to residual gasses. According to the CWC, states should be able to complete these steps within ten years, but the United States, Russia, and South Korea have all at one time applied for extensions because of the inherent complexities of such an undertaking. Further, the destruction of chemical weapons can be prohibitively expensive. It has been estimated that in order to destroy chemical weapons or vats, it would require US$1 million to eliminate one ton of an agent and the sizes of chemical weapons stockpiles varies significantly. For example, Albania is estimated to have originally had 16 metric tons whereas Russia had 40,000 metric tons. According to French intelligence, Syria has about 1,000 metric tons.

Taking all this into consideration, even though the process is time consuming and costly, it is not impossible. Albania, India, and a third state-most likely South Korea although this has never been officially declared-all successfully eliminated their chemical weapons stocks and facilities, as certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body of the CWC.

That being said, Syria does present its own set of unique challenges. First and foremost, Syria must declare its entire arsenal, which will be wrought with uncertainty, as the state does not have a good track record with honesty about its weapons of mass destruction and is clearly not guided by moral constraints about deploying such agents against its own citizens. This leads to another concern; namely, the state is in the midst of a civil war. Because of this, one of two disarmament options can be implemented. The first is to ship the materials out of Syria, most likely to the Shchuchye chemical weapons demilitarization plant in Russia, which could potentially constitute a logistical nightmare given the conditions inside Syria and the very volatile process of moving chemical agents over long distances. The second is to dismantle the stockpiles in Syria. This means that extra safety precautions must be taken to protect inspectors, technicians, and technology during the decommissioning process, a challenge in even a peacetime situation. Third, and possibly most frightening, the vulnerable and relatively exposed position of the weapons necessitates extreme care to ensure that they are not damaged or stolen, potentially making them available to terrorist and other groups both inside and outside the country. Such a theft could occur during the decommissioning process or at any point in the loading and transfer of the weapons to plants to be destroyed either within the country (highly unlikely) or outside of it. This would therefore necessitate a high level of protection in the form of boots on the ground; from outside experts to oversee the process to physical security guards to safeguard transport lines. All of this protection must come from somewhere and likely fall under the mandate of an outside monitoring body, such as the UN. According to Dieter Rothbacher, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, the number of troops required to ensure the safe elimination of Syria’s stockpile is 75,000.

Given all of these challenges, and the political will and funding needed to steer this process successfully, the current level of bravado being expended on Syria is woefully short of achieving goals that are either realistic or might actually serve to deter chemical weapons attacks on civilians in the future.