Syria crisis: The challenge of destroying Assad's chemical weapons

While Russia's plan to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control faces its own diplomatic hurdles, defence and weapons experts are pointing out the immense and practical challenges of dismantling such a program.

Containing the arsenal could be costly, dangerous, and time-consuming

Syria is believed by experts to have 1,000 tonnes 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. (Local Committee of Arbeen/Associated Press)

While Russia's plan to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control faces its own diplomatic hurdles, defence and weapons experts are pointing out the immense and practical challenges of dismantling such a program.

The process sounds relatively simple and would be carried out in a few phases. After the terms of weapons inspections in Syria have been agreed upon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have to declare his stockpiles to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — the group in charge of implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Then, the OPCW would send inspectors into Syria to verify Assad's declaration. After that, the process of dismantling the chemical weapons plants and the declared stockpiles would begin.

But Dina Esfandiary, a WMD expert with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CBC News, "there's a whole slew of problems that comes along with that."

Little is known about Syria's chemical weapons programs. Assad is believed to have the largest arsenal in the Middle East and the fourth largest in the world. 

Production sites are believed to be located near some of the main cities, including Damascus. Storage facilities, thought to contain hundreds, if not thousands of tonnes of sarin, VX, tabun and mustard gas, are scattered around the country.

A convoy of UN vehicles drives through one of the sites of the Aug. 21 attack. One expert says guaranteeing the removal of Syrian chemical weapons will require years of surprise inspections. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

The actual disposal process depends on the type of weapon or agent that needs to be destroyed, Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability for Global Green USA, told CBC's The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti.

For smaller stockpiles of weapons, explosive destructive systems or 'bang-boxes', in which weapons are placed and exploded within a reactor, can be used. But the construction of larger incinerator sites can cost billions, he said.

"This is not going to be a very easy process," Walker said. 

"First of all it's very expensive to do, if you want to do it right. And by doing it right I mean not endangering your workers, not endangering neighbouring communities. You don't want to just go in and just explode these weapons."

It's also risky and difficult just moving the chemicals, depending on the state in which they're in. And if they're weaponized, they're all the more dangerous to transfer.

Never been done during a war

Adding to these challenges —  this kind of operation has never been done in an environment where a brutal civil war continues to wage.

"It's hard enough to do this in a peaceful country, but when the inspectors are likely to become a target, it just makes it a million times more difficult," Esfandiary said.

A Syrian rebel provides cover for a fellow fighter. The chemical weapons plan would need to be carried out amidst a brutal civil war. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters )

Transporting some of the weapons to a containment area where they could be destroyed would be impossible because all the convoys would be targets, she said.

As for a time frame, dismantling a chemical weapons program is not something that can be done quickly.

"People have been talking about this happening ASAP. Well we're not even talking months here, we're talking years," Esfandiary said.

In 2004, Libya announced it would give up its WMDs but by 2011 only half of its stockpiles of mustard gas had been destroyed, she noted.

Walker said the U.S has been destroying its own chemical weapons stockpiles for the past 23 years, and the process continues.

Need to do challenge inspections

Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst with RAND corporation, a global policy think tank, said for inspectors to have any confidence, "they're going to need to be able to do challenge inspections and be able to say: 'We just got some information that point X may have chemicals and we need to go look.' They're going to be doing that for years."

And in the end, how would the international community know that all the weapons are contained?

Girls who survived the reported Aug. 21 gas attack rest inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus. (Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters)

"It's pretty simple. We don't. We have to trust [Assad]," Esfandiary said. "The inspectors go in and they check everything but the inspectors only have access to what they're given access to. They are allowed to check out the sites that he declares.

"Syria's a pretty big country. [The inspectors] can take a map and go and see if they can discover anything else. But short of that and unless they have a significant tip from a Western intelligence organization, it will be difficult for them to uncover stockpiles that haven't been declared or that are deliberately  being hidden."

As the diplomatic process drags on, Assad could be altering the documentation of the program to make it look like only 200 tonnes of chemicals were produced when in fact 600 or 1,200 tonnes may have been produced, Bennett said.

"Initially,  Assad is most likely to send people to places where there’s one 55 gallon drum of chemicals or something like that, where he's not showing much of anything and probably claiming that 'well, that's much of what I've got' while hiding a bunch of other things," Bennett said.

But both Esfandiary and Bennett said that despite all the challenges, it's still a plan worthy to pursue.

"We’re dealing with trying to find the least miserable option. There aren’t any good options here," Bennett said. "And as difficult as this might be, if Syria at least does a fairly modest job by abiding by the proposal, that’s probably better than what we can be secure doing with an attack."

Esfandiary added she is very skeptical about this plan and the likelihood of it being implemented in such a way that would be useful to the international community.

"Having said that, if the international community finds itself in a situation where it's able to degrade even a small portion of Syria's chemical weapons capability then surely it's a risk worth taking."