Demilitarizing Syria’s poison gas will be extremely difficult

Posted Sept. 12, 2013, at 1:34 p.m.

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.

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.

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. 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.

Although Syria’s arsenal may be smaller than the Soviet one, destroying it would be no less an industrial undertaking.

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?

The Washington Post (Sept. 12)