Experts Share Positive Outlook on Syrian Chemical Weapons Destruction

Syria's decision, under international pressure, to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and allow destruction of its chemical weapons is an arms control milestone in the Middle East, experts said at a AAAS-hosted discussion, and it is possible the task could be accomplished by 1 July 2014 as planned.

"The events in Syria are historic and potentially precedent setting," said Michael Moodie, a long-time specialist on chemical and biological weapons who is now an assistant director at the Congressional Research Service. They mark the first time destruction of a weapon of mass destruction "has been undertaken in a hostile environment," Moodie said. International inspectors must cope with the chaos of Syria's ongoing civil war, with at least a third of the declared chemical weapons sites reportedly located in contested areas.

Moodie also noted that Syria agreed to give inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) unfettered access to any site suspected of chemical weapons involvement, even if it had not been identified by the Syrian government. That access, spelled out in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118, gives the inspectors unusually broad authority.

Paul Walker, director of the Environmental Security and Sustainability Program for the nonprofit Green Cross International, said Syria's decision to accede to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was surprising. "None of us really thought that Syria would come into the convention," he said. The CWC outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their precursors.

Michael Moodie is at the podium. Seated, left to right, are Christopher Bidwell , Paul Walker and Chen Kane. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

"This is very positive," agreed Chen Kane, senior research associate at the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, although she said precautions should be taken in case Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tries to conceal part of his chemical weapons stockpile as did dictators Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

Walker, Moodie and Kane spoke at a 23 Oct. session on "The Chemicals, the Conflict and the Challenges in Syria" organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Christopher Bidwell, adjunct senior fellow for nonproliferation law and policy at FAS, moderated the discussion.

Syria possesses about 1,000 metric tons of chemicals for weapons, Walker said, with nearly all of it in the form of chemical precursors for sarin and mustard gas. Because most of the chemicals are not yet "weaponized" by being mixed and placed into munitions, he said, it is feasible to ship them out of Syria for final destruction and disposal. That should make it easier to meet the mid-2014 deadline for eliminating the Syrian arsenal, Walker said, although Moodie said he remains doubtful the ambitious timeline can be met.

It remains unclear who might be willing to accept the chemicals. Walker said that most nations in Western Europe approached by the United States have not yet said yes, although Albania, Belgium, and France "didn't say no." Both Belgium and France are very experienced in methods for destroying chemical weapons, Walker said. Norway, which had been considering the U.S. request, declined on 25 Oct. due to what Foreign Minister Børge Brende called "time constraints" and "technical and legal restrictions." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said recently that Denmark had offered unspecified assistance in destroying the Syrian chemical arsenal.

The chemicals typically are destroyed by incineration or neutralized in a process called hydrolysis by the addition of water and agents such as caustic soda. For munitions that must be destroyed in place, specialists can use mobile explosion chambers known as "bang boxes."

Walker said successful destruction of Syria's chemical stockpile would move the region a step closer to a "WMD-free zone in the Mideast" and could increase pressure on Egypt and Israel to be more forthcoming about whether they have any existing stockpiles of chemical weapons.

"We have right now in the region only two countries that are not party" to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Kane said. Egypt has neither signed nor ratified the treaty. Israel has signed it but has not ratified it.

Elsewhere, three other states have neither signed nor ratified the convention: Angola, North Korea and South Sudan. Myanmar, like Israel, has signed but not ratified it. Walker said Angola, South Sudan and Myanmar have shown interest in joining the treaty. North Korea, which has a chemical weapons stockpile estimated at between 2,500 and 5,000 tons, denies it has such weapons and has rebuffed pleas to join the treaty.

One of the lingering questions in Syria, Walker said, is whether the OPCW will have sufficient resources and funding to carry out the inspections in a timely fashion. He said the number of full-time OPCW inspectors has dropped from about 200 to 112, with some of them still tied up with inspection duties in Russia and Libya. He also noted that OPCW's budget has been reduced by about 15% recently. A special voluntary trust fund has been established to help pay for the Syria operation. The United States, Germany and Canada have donated about $10 million, Walker said, but the cost of destroying the Syrian arsenal could be "well over $100 million."

Still, Walker said he is "optimistic personally that it will go well," even though the timeline is tight. Assuming success, he said it will be important "to leverage this historic situation" to help bring other countries that have or are suspected to have chemical weapons under the international treaty umbrella. "Finish the Syrian project," he said, "but let's keep the momentum going and bring these other countries in."

Moodie said the Syrian case also should serve as "a wake-up call to those who have been complacent and satisfied" with the Chemical Weapons Convention. The initial emphasis of the treaty was to rid the world of the large U.S. and Russian arsenals of chemical weapons. The U.S. has now destroyed about 90% of its 28,600 metric tons of weapons and Russia has destroyed 75% of its arsenal of 40,000 tons, according to Walker.

But as the Syria case unfolds, there have been some conflicts between the language of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the U.N. resolution — brokered by Russia and the United States — that gives the OPCW authority to destroy Assad's arsenal. According to Moodie, the treaty does not allow transfer of chemical weapons stocks from one state to another. The U.N. resolution does allow such transfers, as would occur if the precursor chemicals now in Syria are shipped to other nations for destruction. The treaty language must be adapted, Moodie said, if it is to remain "an effective instrument in a world that has evolved."