The challenge of chemical weapons disarmament in Syria

Amy Smithson writes: On September 14, 2013, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, storage, and use of poison gas, welcomed its 190th member. The milestone shows just how far the world has come on chemical weapons.

To appreciate the change, it is worth remembering that, throughout the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein’s regime used poison gas repeatedly, including to slaughter thousands of civilians in an attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988. Beyond a few rhetorical complaints, the world turned a blind eye. This time around, within a month of poison-tipped rockets falling on a Damascus suburb and killing 1,400 civilians, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a joint framework for chemical disarmament in Syria and Damascus acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In short, the outcry and action after the August 21 attacks indicate that 2013 is not 1988.

The U.S.-Russian agreement is an important first step, but many make-or-break moments remain. As Kerry introduced the deal, he announced that the United States and Russia had agreed that Syria’s chemical stockpile comprises roughly 1,000 metric tons of the blister agent mustard gas, the nerve agent sarin, and the precursor chemicals used to make other agents. He voiced Washington’s belief that the chemicals weapons program involves 45 sites, indicating a large array of deployment locations and to several research, development, production, and storage sites. (The Russian delegation was silent on this particular matter.) Compared with the massive 32,000-metric-ton and 40,000-metric-ton arsenals that the United States and the Soviet Union produced during the Cold War, Syria’s is rather small. Still, its dispersal across a country embroiled in conflict will make disarmament tremendously challenging.

The U.S.-Russian framework is premised on a highly compressed version of the Chemical Weapons Convention’s timelines for the declaration and destruction of weapons, as well as on an adjusted version of the treaty’s inspection procedures for declared sites. The convention’s inspectorate in The Hague, called the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), will carry out the bulk of the work. A close examination of where this effort will break with precedent shows just how challenging carrying out this plan will be.

First, when it comes to chemical weapons nonproliferation, things usually move at a snail’s pace. The convention itself took 24 years to negotiate, and decisions often languish in the convention’s governing body, the OPCW’s executive council. Destruction plans have historically taken many months to draft and approve, and destruction facilities take years to construct, given the need to build in safeguards against accidents during the process, which often mates explosives and propellants with deadly chemical warfare agents. The U.S.-Russian framework stipulates complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014 — a tall order indeed. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “The challenge of chemical weapons disarmament in Syria

  1. rosemerry

    Amy accepts the US figures of 1000 dead, as well as ignoring the US supply of the CW to its ally Saddam. CW are part of an arsenal; white phosphorus is one of the worst examples;napalm and depleted uranium are other favorites of the USA.
    Why is is worse to be gassed than to be shot, blown up, or cluster bombed years after hostilities end?

  2. Norman

    In answer to rosemary’s question: W.P. Napalm, depleted uranium and cluster bombs, are a lucrative source of income for the manufacturers, due to the quantities produced and sold. Keep in mind, the U.S. is the biggest arms merchant of death today, and they don’t want to lose that position.

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