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The cat-and-mouse game with chemical weapons

Neutralizing Syria's chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war is a complex undertaking that could take years and involve great risk. Nevertheless, experts
Syrian weapons - Adam Serwer - 09/10/2013
Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are seen in Arjoun village near Qusair town May 30, 2013.

Neutralizing Syria's chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war is a complex undertaking that could take years and involve great risk. Nevertheless, experts say that voluntary disarmament, as the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad appears to have agreed to in principle, would be more effective than a U.S. military strike.

"If the regime was actually serious about voluntary disarmament, that outcome would be vastly preferable to air strikes that would at most degrade their chemical weapons capabilities in some limited way," says Phillipp Bleek, a former U.S. defense department arms control official who is now an assistant professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "The logistics remain extraordinarily challenging."

Tuesday, Syrian government officials appeared to accept a Russian proposal that the regime place its chemical weapons under international control in exchange for averting a U.S. military strike. The U.S. government has accused the Assad regime of perpetrating a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21 that killed nearly 1500 people. The Syrian opposition, which hoped U.S. strikes might tip the balance in favor of the rebels, have come out against the proposal.

While the details are still being hammered out by diplomats, the basic contours of any deal would involve Syria signing on to the international ban on chemical weapons, declaring and identifying its chemical weapons stockpiles, and allowing inspectors from the United Nations or the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons access.

"If Syria does not make a clear legal commitment to eliminate their chemical weapons stockpiles it makes international control impossible," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. Inspectors could be on the ground in Syria within a number of weeks depending on how the negotiations at the UN pan out, but it could take up to a year or more to determine whether or not the disarmament process is working.

But securing, neutralizing, or disposing of chemical weapons stockpiles in the midst of Syria's bloody civil war will be extraordinarily difficult.

"The challenges associated with actually dealing with Syria's chemical weapons, delivery devices, precursors, and production capabilities are immense," says Bleek. "Destruction would take years, realistically on the order of a decade or longer."

Chemical weapons are difficult to dispose of—they either have to be incinerated or neutralized with other chemical agents. That takes time, and it also takes a safe space—Syria's ongoing civil war means that trying to dispose of the stockpiles within its borders would be very dangerous. Rebel attacks on the facilities could disperse the chemicals, or extremist elements could seek control of the Assad regime's arsenal for itself once the locations are made public. The stockpiles could be moved out of Syria and placed in a third-party country's possession, such as Russia, which is Syria's patron. But transporting them would raise serious security risks as well. Syria's chemical weapons facilities are currently guarded by regime forces, which raises the question of who would be responsible for protecting the facilities if Assad begins to lose the war.

"If you get half of the stuff out, and everything collapses, half of the stuff and an airstrike is better than just an airstrike," says Jeffrey Lewis, another professor at the Monterey Institute. The use of force remains a subject of dispute between the United States and Russia, with Russia threatening to veto any UN proposal that sanctions the use of force if Assad does not ultimately disarm.

"If the threat of force is removed, there is a risk Assad will not follow through on these commitments," says Kimball. "So you still want to maintain the threat of force, perhaps by the security council saying further serious action may be taken under Chapter VII if Syria does not follow through." Chapter VII of the United Nations charter outlines when the use of force is legal under international law.

Logistics aren't the only problem. The last two authoritarian leaders in the Middle East to subject their chemical weapons programs to international control were Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and Libya's Moammar Gaddafi in the 2000s, both of whom ended up dead as a result of American military interventions. Undeclared stockpiles of chemical weapons were also found in Libya after Gaddafi's fall.

"When you think about deterrence, the threat of punishment is important, but equally important is the credibility of your promise to refrain from punishing if the bad guy complies," says Lewis. "The problem with [what happened to] Gaddafi is it would appear to suggest that we wouldn't necessarily refrain from punishment. "

As Assad contemplates giving up his own weapons in order to avert a U.S. strike, the possibility of ending up like Hussein or Gaddafi is likely on his mind.

"Assad has a chemical weapons arsenal in order to deter attacks from the outside," says Kimball who says that Assad still has every incentive to cooperate with international authorities. "These weapons have now become a much greater liability than an asset to the Assad regime, if they ever were an asset. They now threaten his existence."