The challenge of removing Syria’s chemical weapons

The New York Times reports: A plan announced over the weekend for getting the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons out of the country in coming weeks has raised major concerns in Washington, because it involves transporting the weapons over roads that are battlegrounds in the country’s civil war and loading them onto a ship that has no place to go.

Security for the shipments is being provided entirely by Syrian military units loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who has surprised American officials with how speedily he has complied with an agreement brokered by Russia to identify and turn over his chemical weapon stockpiles. Intelligence analysts and Pentagon officials say the shipments will be vulnerable to attack as they travel past the ruins of a war that has raged for two and a half years.

Asked over the weekend what the backup plan would be if the chemical weapons components were attacked by opposition forces linked to Al Qaeda, or even elements of Mr. Assad’s own forces, a senior American official said: “That’s the problem — no one has attempted this before in a civil war, and no one is willing to put troops on the ground to protect this stuff, including us.”

Another official noted that the choice now facing the United States and other nations was to “either leave the stuff in place and hope for the best, or account for it, get it out of there, and hope for the best. That’s the ‘least worst’ option.”

A range of current and former administration and Pentagon officials discussed the risks of moving the Syrian chemical munitions on the condition of anonymity. Most were reluctant to even disclose their concerns, because of the delicacy of the continuing operations to clear the country of chemical weapons. Even if the chemicals make it safely to a Syrian port and are loaded on cargo ships to be taken out of Syrian territory by the deadlines set in the agreement — Dec. 31 for the most critical material, Feb. 5 for most of the rest — the problems would hardly be over.

On Friday, Albania turned down an appeal by the United States to destroy the weapons on its territory, after thousands of Albanians took to the street in protest. Norway rejected an earlier request, saying it did not have the expertise or the facilities to destroy the weapons. The issue caused a major political dispute there as well.

As a result, Syria’s chemical weapons material may be on the high seas for a long time, as officials seek a country willing and able to destroy it. Already there are fears that the cargo ships bearing the material could become the weapons equivalent of a barge loaded with garbage that left Long Island in 1987 but could not find a place to unload for four months. American law prohibits the importation of chemical weapons for destruction here, and Russia says it is still overwhelmed by the task of destroying its own stockpiles. [Continue reading…]

Since the primary threat posed by these weapons (other than the threat they posed to Syria’s own population) was to Israel and since Israel is the primary beneficiary of Syria being disarmed, why not destroy the chemical weapons in Israel rather than transport them any greater distance?

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