The Russian suggestion that Syria put its chemical weapons under international supervision sounded like a potential diplomatic breakthrough. In the aftermath of the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus that is said to have killed more than 1,400 people, it would certainly seem proper for a United Nations force to march in, load the remaining bombs and artillery shells onto trucks and cart them away to a safe place for disposal — and do it fast.
But the reality is forbiddingly difficult, a tall order in peacetime and nearly impossible in war. All the world’s experience so far with the destruction of chemical weapons suggests it is a time-consuming, costly and large-scale industrial process.
Even making the doubtful assumption that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be willing to provide access to the Syrian chemical weapons complex, his regime is fighting a war for its existence, and the personnel sent to seize the chemical weapons could be sucked into the conflict by the warring sides. They would necessarily be non-Syrians, and they might require their own protection force.
Assuming the weapons could be secured and guarded, there are still immense challenges in demilitarization. Consider the experience of Russia at Shchuchye, near its southern border, where the Soviet Union stockpiled chemical weapons. Row upon row of shells filled with the nerve agent sarin, not unlike those in Syria, were stored in wooden warehouses. After the Cold War, Russia and the United States jointly built a factory to demilitarize the shells. The plant cost more than $1 billion and took years to construct and put into operation. The shells were drilled, and the nerve agents carefully drained and neutralized.
Although Syria’s arsenal may be smaller than the Soviet one, destroying it would be no less an industrial undertaking. Could such a delicate, risky and long-term process be carried out on Syrian territory while war rages? If not, how realistic is it to imagine the weapons could be removed safely to somewhere else? And who will cover the potentially staggering expense of the operation?
The Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria had previously refused to join, requires a certain amount of accounting. Syria would have to declare within 30 days of joining the contents of its weapons and all production facilities. Could Assad, who has delayed and obfuscated, be relied upon to file a truthful declaration, or would he attempt to hide certain facilities, perhaps hoping to resume production of poison gas if pressed to the wall by the rebels?
Any discussion of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons must not end with the known munitions and agents — it must also include documentation on the origin, scope and operations of the program. Not just the warheads but the factories also must be irreversibly mothballed. The chemical weapons treaty is notable for its stringent verification procedures, and they must be brought to bear with full force should the latest diplomacy crack open Syria’s arsenal.
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Editor’s note: This editorial originally appeared in the Washington Post.