BEIRUT (AP) — Russia's proposal to place Syria's chemical weapons stockpile under international control for dismantling would involve a lengthy and complicated operation made more difficult by a deep lack of trust — not to mention the lack of an inventory.
Syria is believed by experts to have 1,000 tons of chemical warfare agents scattered over several dozen sites across the country, and just getting them transferred while fighting rages presents a logistical and security nightmare.
Very few details are known so far about the plan announced Monday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, part of a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at averting U.S.-led military strikes in retaliation for a deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
The process of disarmament is rife with challenges, taking place against the backdrop of a raging civil war and an opaque regime that until now has never formally confirmed that it has chemical weapons. Lack of trust between the regime's chief supporters and opponents in the international community is likely to complicate the operation.
“I'm very concerned about the fine print,” said Amy E. Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. “It's a gargantuan task for the inspectors to mothball production, install padlocks, inventory the bulk agent as well as the munitions. Then a lot of it has to be destroyed — in a war zone.”
“What I'm saying is, 'Beware of this deal,' ” Smithson added. “It's deceptively attractive.”
President Bashar Assad's regime is said to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve gas sarin.
There have been long-standing concerns that the embattled leader might unleash them on a larger scale or transfer some of them to the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group, or that the chemical agents could fall into the hands of al-Qaida militants among the rebels.
Many are skeptical that the Syrian regime would follow through on its commitments. The government has typically accepted last-minute deals with the international community to buy time, then argued over the details or gone back on its promises.
“These kind of disarmament agreements require a very intrusive inspection system; the natural assumption is Assad will cheat,” said Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. “I just don't know how you can have that kind of inspection system in the middle of a civil war.”
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, known by its acronym OPCW, will most likely work, along with the U.N., on a framework for implementing the deal.
The OPCW is the implementing authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The convention requires all parties to the treaty to declare and to destroy whatever chemical weapons they may possess under the international verification of the OPCW.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday that his government will declare its chemical weapons arsenal and sign the convention.
Experts said large numbers of foreign troops would almost certainly be needed to safeguard inspectors working in the midst of the civil war.
“We're talking boots on the ground,” said one former U.N. weapons inspector from Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works in the field on contracts and did not want to undermine his chances of future employment. “We're not talking about just putting someone at the gate. You have to have layers of security.”
Destruction and deactivation of those weapons could then take years.
A Pentagon study concluded that doing so would take more than 75,000 troops. That rough estimate has been questioned, but the official said it gave “a sense of the magnitude of the task.”
This report includes material from Bloomberg News and the New York Times.
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