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Don’t hold your breath for Syrian chemical weapons to be destroyed

First published by Haaretz

Syria’s chemical weapons were always the deterrent element in its strategy to balance Israel’s overall military strength and its undeclared nuclear threat. However, since the outbreak of the civil war these chemical weapons have become the Alawite community’s best insurance policy against the threat to their physical existence and to the survival of the Assad regime.

Back in May, I suggested in Haaretz that the United States and Russia agree to a “grand bargain” under which “all Syrian non-conventional weapons (chemical, nuclear and biological) be removed and destroyed under international supervision (in the same manner as the Gadhafi regime’s chemical weapons were destroyed after the regime’s fall).” At the same time, if the Assad regime should fall, the U.S. and Russia should guarantee the security and the safety of the Syrian regime’s dominant Alawite minority, who may well decide to retreat into an Alawite statelet in order to preserve the survival of their community from the certain revenge of the Sunni rebels.

Therefore I am skeptical that a Syria still ruled by Bashar Assad and ever-conscious of the Alawite community’s fragile future is ready to renounce its entire chemical arsenal as the Russian-American plan proposes.

The timetable and the implementation conditions of the plan seem for the moment completely unrealistic. The “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” recognizes that the goals are indeed “ambitious”, as it stipulates:”the removal and destruction [in the first half of 2014] of… all…stocks of chemical weapons agents, their precursors, specialized CW equipment, and CW munitions…[and] must include the facilities for the development and production of these weapons.

Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal is huge by any measure, possibly the third or fourth largest in the world (see the full description of this arsenal here).

Even in the best conditions, which would include a general cease-fire and the withdrawal of the two sides from the frontlines to allow international inspectors to do their work, the process would take (in my evaluation) three to five years.

Chemical weapons can be destroyed by incineration or neutralized with other chemical agents. Chemicals contained in bombs or artillery shells are disassembled by robots. That requires the construction of special facilities near the storage sites or at some central location, facilities which don’t exist in Syria.

At the end of the first Gulf War, Iraq’s army was in possession of huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In April 1991, the UN Security Council created UNSCOM, a special commission to find and dismantle Iraq’s biological, chemical weapons and ballistic-missile programs.

For the first few years, Iraqi officials failed to disclose much of their special weapons programs to the inspectors. In 1995, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law Kamel Hussein defected and revealed that there was a vast arsenal of weapons they had failed to uncover, including biological weapons. This was a breakthrough for the inspection teams who continued their work until 1998, when they were expelled from Iraq.

UNSCOM’s final report noted that a “significant number” of chemical weapons, their components, and related equipment were destroyed between 1991 and 1997. Still, UNSCOM found that the destruction of 2,000 unfilled munitions remained uncertain, and 550 filled munitions remained unaccounted for.

The recent Libya example is even more telling. A secret military storage base of mustard gas in Jufra was discovered after the fall of Gadhafi by the end of 2011. The new government cooperated with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) whose inspectors visited the country and gave Libya a deadline of April 2012 for the destruction of the chemicals.

Two years later – and in spite of ample technical and financial support from the U.S., Germany and Canada – the mustard gas is still there. The German government is even now providing training courses for Libyan experts on dismantling chemical agents and hopefully before the end of this year a state-of-the-art demolition chamber with a flue gas purification system will become operational in Libya.

It seems Russia has decided to save the Assad regime with a scheme that was planned with Syrian FM Walid al-Moallem in coordination with Iran, represented in the meeting in Moscow on September 9 by visiting Iranian Deputy FM for Arab and African affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Iran stressed “the readiness of Syria’s allies to back it in case of a military strike.” Iranians have a long history of leading long-term sterile negotiations with the West and could well have given useful lessons to the Russians and the Syrians.

For the moment Moscow seems ready to provide Syria with more conventional defensive weapons, which means the deadly civil “conventional” war could continue unabated and favor the Assad regime’s survival.

The successful eradication of Syria’s chemical arsenal thus still seems like a distant reality; not only the technicalities and logistics of destroying its arsenal signal the difficulty of implementation, but the international diplomacy surrounding the process means that Damascus has gained ample space and time to maneuver and sabotage its planned destruction.