Very dangerous ‘marshmallows’
When Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had to convince the world 10 years ago that he was serious about giving up his chemical weapons, he dragged warheads and bombs into the desert and flattened them with bulldozers.
When Saddam Hussein, defeated in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, had to demonstrate that he was giving up his chemical arsenal, Iraqis protected by little more than tattered cloths over their faces poured some of the agents into ditches and set them on fire — to the shock of inspectors watching in heavy “moon suits.”
Weapons experts and diplomats say that if President Bashar al-Assad is serious about complying with the landmark agreement announced in Geneva on Saturday, he will have to take similarly dramatic action in the coming weeks. Anything short of an immediate demonstration of willingness, they say, will be a sign that Mr. Assad is seeking to drag out the process, betting that time is on his side as memories fade of the attack that is said to have killed more than 1,400 people and prompted a military standoff with the United States.
The benchmarks laid out in the Geneva agreement seek to capitalize on the momentum by imposing quick deadlines, including a requirement that Syria submit a complete list of its chemical weapons, and storage and production facilities within a week. The agreement also requires “immediate and unfettered” access to chemical weapons sites by international inspectors.
The agreement calls for the destruction of chemical agent mixing equipment by November and, perhaps most ambitious, for Syria to completely rid itself of chemical weapons and production facilities in less than a year, a timetable that would set a speed record and one that many experts doubt could be completed even with Syria’s full cooperation.
Experts say speed is of the essence.
“You have a very limited time to do as much as you can with maximum political support,” said David A. Kay, who led major efforts in the 1990s to find and destroy Iraq’s unconventional arms. “The political support will start to erode. The people you’re inspecting will get tired. So you want to do as much as you can, as quickly as you can.”
But the destruction of chemical agents is a painstaking process that, to be done safely and securely, can easily take decades. And even the preliminary steps are laden with potential political hurdles and environmental risks, and possibilities for obfuscation and deception.
“We don’t want to create another chemical weapons disaster; Syria has already had several,” said one senior administration official who has knowledge of the meetings over how to separate Mr. Assad from the arsenal that he and his father have built up over the past three decades. He insisted on anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations. But if Mr. Assad does not put on “a big, demonstrable show” to prove to the Syrian military that he is “giving up the crown jewels,” the official said, “this isn’t going to work.”
Robert Joseph, a former top national security official under President George W. Bush who helped create the requirements for Libya when it gave up its nuclear program and chemical stockpiles, said Libya complied because “the Libyan leadership believed that it would be attacked” if it did not abandon its program.
“I doubt Assad has that worry now,” he said, though White House officials insist that President Obama’s declaration that he is keeping military forces in the Mediterranean on alert sends that message.
Mr. Joseph said that a public declaration from Mr. Assad that he would destroy his stockpiles “without any preconditions” was critical to “demonstrate to the Syrian military and bureaucracy that they must comply,” and that the immediate destruction of empty warheads and bombs “serves to reinforce that point.”
Mr. Assad, however, also knows that Mr. Hussein and Colonel Qaddafi were both deposed and ultimately executed years after giving up their weapons.
“The history does not exactly create an incentive,” the senior administration official said.
On Saturday, Mr. Assad had yet to make a public statement endorsing the agreement, which was negotiated by the United States and Russia, Syria’s main international patron. While he is expected to sign on to the plan, so far, he has equivocated.
He made preliminary moves to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would require him to give up his chemical arms. But he then declared that he would act only if the United States removed any threat of military action and stopped sending arms to the rebel groups seeking to oust him. White House officials have made clear that they have no intention of removing coercion from their diplomatic playbook, and there was no concession on that point in the Geneva agreement.
Weapons experts also say that the international inspectors should also have the right to conduct extensive interviews with Mr. Assad’s weapons officials to verify his list and to investigate the possibilities of any hidden supplies and facilities. Such interviews were not specifically mentioned in the agreement, and there has been no indication that Mr. Assad would allow his chemical weapons experts, including the members of the elite Unit 450 that controls the arsenal, to be interviewed by anyone.
American officials say they expect Mr. Assad to balk at the destruction of missile warheads or bombs, which can be used for conventional and unconventional arms. One American military official estimated that Mr. Assad had already shot off about half his arsenal of missiles, but that more were arriving, including from Iran.
Finally, Mr. Assad continues to move his stockpile, American intelligence officials say, often consolidating it to keep it in places that seem at little risk of being overrun by the rebels. Such consolidation could work to the American government’s advantage if it meant the weapons were stored in fewer locations, but the activity also creates the possibility that some of the stockpile could be diverted or hidden.
It is also likely to contribute to delays in the disarmament process because the inspections will require highly intrusive searches of all known chemical weapons sites, current and previous, to determine whether any were hidden or left behind. The frequent movement of Mr. Assad’s stockpiles has created more sites that experts say must be inspected.
Even in the cases of Iraq and Libya, which cooperated in the destruction of their stockpiles, small stashes of chemical weapons have been found years later, apparently not out of any intentional deception but because they were simply forgotten.
Until there is a United Nations resolution or until Syria formally enters the Chemical Weapons Convention, there are no international rules to govern how and where Mr. Assad stores the material, or that would require him to destroy it. For all those reasons, White House officials say they are deeply skeptical. On Friday, they said they would allow about two weeks to see if a United Nations Security Council resolution could be drafted, and they have already given up hope of passing one that gives the Council’s blessing to military action if Mr. Assad reneges.
At the core of the debate over how to test Mr. Assad are two conflicting strategies to getting rid of chemical arms: the slow, safe and costly, versus the quick and dirty. When the United States had to get rid of Nazi Germany’s chemical weapons, it dumped them into the Baltic Sea; Japan’s ended up in the Pacific.
But the United States’ effort to get rid of its own stockpile has now taken 28 years and $35 billion — and it is not yet over. Over the years, the United States has led the world in developing special furnaces that scrub out dangerous waste products, and it has created methods to react the material with water and other chemicals to permanently undo the toxic structures. It has built seven destruction plants across the world, including at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific and the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and it is in the process of building two more, at Richmond, Ky., and Pueblo, Colo.
Mr. Obama has made it clear to his staff that no one has time for a painstakingly slow process in Syria, and the Geneva agreement reflects that urgency.
Iraq after the gulf war is a prime example of the quick-and-dirty approach. The chemical arsenal was destroyed, and at fire-sale prices compared with the costly American approach, said Charles A. Duelfer, a top United Nations official in the elimination of Iraq’s chemical arsenal.
“We gathered stuff from all over and destroyed it for under $10 million,” he recalled in an interview. Some leaky munitions were too dangerous to move, Mr. Duelfer said. “So we’d dig a pit, put in diesel fuel, and blow the stuff up.”
Raymond A. Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, said chemical experts would get up early to beat the desert heat, donning full-body protective suits that protected them from hazardous fumes at sites where lethal toxins were being incinerated in open pits.
“They’d supervise the Iraqis,” he said of the United Nations inspectors. But the local workers themselves, he added, wore sandals and “put rags over their faces.”
But the rapid work gave way to gradual obstruction. Mr. Hussein grew increasingly hostile to United Nations arms inspectors, and by late 1998, seven years after the gulf war ended, the United States fired hundreds of cruise missiles at Iraq in an unsuccessful bid to force Baghdad to get serious. That effort largely failed, and the absence of inspectors led the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies to make projections about how quickly Mr. Hussein was rebuilding his arsenals. Those estimates, which fueled the march to war in 2003, proved entirely wrong.
Libya was a different case. Months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Colonel Qaddafi contacted Britain and said he wanted to give up all of his unconventional weapons — from the nuclear centrifuges he had bought from the founder of the Pakistani nuclear program to his chemical arms.
He struck the deal with American and British officials, with the understanding that they would lift economic sanctions. In short, he had a motive for giving up his weapons that Mr. Assad, amid a civil war and a fight for the survival of his government, cannot even contemplate.
Even so, Libya is left with thousands of pounds of mustard blister agents that it is still working to destroy, two years after Colonel Qaddafi’s death. The United States is paying much of the bill for destroying what remains.