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International experts mull Syrian chemical weapon proposal | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Members of a UN investigation team take samples in the Damascus countryside of Ain Terma, Syria. (AP Photo/United media office of Arbeen)

Members of a UN investigation team take samples in the Damascus countryside of Ain Terma, Syria. (AP Photo/United media office of Arbeen)

Members of a UN investigation team take samples in the Damascus countryside of Ain Terma, Syria. (AP Photo/United media office of Arbeen)

Washington and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision would require the complete cooperation of a regime which is very secretive about its arsenal, in an operation which is difficult to carry out amid a civil war, say international disarmament experts.

If the proposal was successful, it would mean a fundamental change in Damascus’s stance, which has to date refused to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and avoided questions about the arsenal it denied existed until very recently. This arsenal is considered among the world’s largest and French intelligence services have estimated its volume at “more than 1000 tonnes.”

Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, told French news agency AFP that “the first stage starts with Syria immediately signing the agreement to ban chemical weapons,” which came into force in 2007.

In addition to joining the treaty, Damascus must provide a list of its arsenal and allow inspectors into the country to verify its statements and “investigate every ounce of chemical materials and ammunition,” according to spokesman of the organization, Michael Luhan.

It is also possible to employ UN inspectors for this task in a similar way to the task carried out last August in Syria, or in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, according to Kimball. He also said “the problem with executing that task from a practical point lies in guaranteeing the safety of the inspectors and the safety of the chemicals in the long term.”

The expert did not hide his skepticism, however, saying “it is difficult to imagine the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons during a civil war,” adding that “this is not the kind of work you want to do under the threat of missiles in the area.”

David Kay, a former senior UN inspector in Iraq, said the task required large numbers of inspectors to guarantee the inspection of all the sites around the clock and to stop anyone entering these sites.

The West fears that President Assad could lose control of these chemicals–which include Mustard gas and the nerve agents VX and sarin–and that they will fall into the hands of extremist opposition groups.

Following the Russian proposal, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on Monday that areas controlled by the UN should be established in Syria to secure and destroy the chemical weapons. This would cost billions of dollars and take many years. The United States has spent USD 35 billion over the last two decades destroying its stockpile, in an operation which will not end before 2021.

Luhan said manufacturing chemical weapons is something, but destroying them is a different matter, “because it is more costly and sensitive at both technical and legal levels.”

The operation to remove the danger is different, depending on whether the chemical is attached to a missile as is the case in America, or is stockpiled before use, as is the case in Russia. In the first case, the weapons must be destroyed by burning them in specialized plants. In the second case, the chemicals can be deactivated by adding a chemical compound.

French intelligence service reports published in September indicate that the Syrian arsenal is “stored in a binary format, which means in the form of two chemical materials which are mixed before use.” This is similar to the system used in Russia, who is suspected in helping Syria build its chemical weapon program in the 1970s.

The Syrian regime has a number of research centers in the Damascus suburbs, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia and Hama, and has produced hundreds of tonnes of chemical materials every year, according to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which lists all WMD arsenals in the world.