While plans for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles take shape, the magnitude of the operation should not be overlooked. The effort will take years, will not wholly eliminate the threat of chemical weapons’ use in the near term and will be fraught with risk.
The United States and Russia have given the Syrian regime until Sept. 21 to produce a complete list of its chemical agents and munitions types as well as the locations of storage, production and research and development facilities. In the existing plan, international inspectors will enter Syria by November for an initial assessment and to destroy all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons. Every component of the chemical weapons program is supposed to be destroyed or out of the country by mid-2014.
Following the standard for chemical weapons disposal, the weapons must be incinerated in order to ensure their complete destruction in a safe and efficient manner. This is done at a permanent facility or in a specially designed mobile unit. There are other means of disposing of the chemical weapons — for example, burying them in the desert — but any of these other approaches could have an impact on the surrounding environment and populations and could result in serious political backlash.
Major Chemical Weapons Sites in Syria
Incineration of chemical weapons is not as simple as pouring barrels of material into an incinerator operating at maximum capacity; it is a long and technical process of separating the chemical agent from its container or munitions and destroying it, then safely destroying anything that contained the material, including unexploded ordnance. Furthermore, anything that could hold chemical weapons must at least be inspected to determine whether it was ever used. Any such item will likely be destroyed either way. In the case of munitions that contain or have contained chemical weapons, the process can be extremely laborious because they can be decades old and in some form of decay and may be unstable. This process requires specialists and specific equipment, time, security and money.
Options for Securing Syria’s Chemical Weapons
One option for the international community to secure the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons would be for Damascus to voluntarily turn over all of its weapons, moving them to a collection point near a border or to a port, where international personnel could assume control and then ship them to a secure place for storage and destruction. The advantage of this scenario is that it would reduce the number of personnel put in harm’s way and that all of the specialists could be concentrated in a single area, limiting the need for multiple teams and simplifying security. It would be possible to have only a few hundred specialists handling incoming material at a port in a relatively secure part of the country, such as the port of Tartus.
However, this scenario would require a considerable amount of trust to be placed in the regime of Bashar al Assad because there would be no way to verify that all of the regime’s chemical weapons had been delivered. In addition, the sheer logistics of moving 1,000 or so tons of dangerous material across Syria from dispersed storage areas is daunting and in some cases would be fraught with risk, such as from the sites that are besieged by rebel forces, necessitating their cooperation. Finally, there would need to be international actors willing and able to ship the material and others willing and able to receive it, store it and destroy it in their territory.
On the opposite end of the spectrum would be a full-scale incursion, in which armed personnel would be sent to every known storage, research or production site to protect them from the rebels and the regime. In a brief to the U.S. Congress, plans crafted by the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that at least 75,000 combat troops would be needed on the ground for this option. That figure does not account for the number of personnel and assets required to support the ground force in maneuver.
This option is tantamount to invasion and occupation, but it would primarily focus on chemical weapon sites. Specialists required for the disposal would be in the thousands; this is where the bulk of international assistance would be required. As combat soldiers sat on sites, teams of specialists could move about and carefully destroy the weapons. While this could be an international operation, the scale, sophistication and prowess required to do it would mean that the United States would dominate all facets of the operation, at least initially.
The size and composition of this force would enable it to have unilateral movement through the country. It would not need nearly as much cooperation from al Assad’s forces as the previous option and would be the best method of verifying the destruction of the largest portion of the chemical weapons arsenal. It would also ensure the best access to sites that are contested or besieged, since this unit could force itself into place. This option would also secure the weapons in place and would alleviate the need to expose them to the danger of transportation.
At the same time, the risks involved in this scenario are high. Personnel would be dispersed over a large geographic area in the middle of a combat zone. They would need to be supplied, so convoys and airlifts, which are vulnerable to ambush, would be constant. Even under ideal circumstances, this operation would take months or likely years to accomplish, and the costs would be very high.
A variation on this option would be to secure the weapons with an initial influx of ground troops but then consolidate the seized materials at either a protected central facility or a site for shipment out of the country. The goal would be to reduce the time in which significant numbers of personnel are in the country. Aside from the hazards of transportation in such a scenario, an international intervention to seize the sites would likely cause the outright collapse of the Syrian regime, thus placing the responsibility for post-al Assad Syria on the intervening force.
The Middle Ground
There are other options between the extremes already detailed. The two main scenarios would be to either insert weapons inspectors and chemical weapons destruction technicians under the protection of the Syrian military or to dispatch the inspectors and technicians with a U.N.-backed armed protection force. Previous weapons inspectors, such as former chief U.N. weapons inspector David Kay, have estimated that some 2,000 inspectors would be needed for a Syria mission.
In the first option, deploying specialists under the protection of the Syrian regime, there would be significant risks, and the complete cooperation of the regime to ensure the experts’ safety would be paramount. It would be difficult for a number of countries to consider sending inspectors under such conditions. On the other hand, sending inspectors alongside armed U.N. protection would likely encounter objections from the regime, and there would be considerable risks of instigating firefights with regime or rebel forces in incidents in which chemical weapons facilities were located in disputed territory.
A variation of these options would be to establish a central protected facility from which a security force could be deployed to secure one stockpile at a time and return it to the protected facility. (In this case, a smaller force would focus on each site individually, whereas in the scenario described above, a larger force would seize all chemical weapons sites before moving them to a central location.) This option would depend on a certain amount of cooperation from al Assad’s regime, and although fewer personnel would be at risk, it would take much longer to accomplish and would leave unsecured portions of the chemical weapons arsenal exposed to attack or use. The smaller team would also have a much more difficult time gaining access to contested sites or territory and would struggle to verify the total portion of the arsenal that had been destroyed.
All of these options come with some form of political cost. No matter which course is pursued, destruction of the stockpiles cannot comprehensively be verified, there will always be personnel at risk and there will always be the chance that chemical weapons will still be used despite the efforts underway. Any country that chooses to participate will be at risk of being undermined because the process will be expensive and will take years to realistically accomplish.