SyriaSyria’s chemical weapons can be destroyed within nine months: experts

Published 27 September 2013

Weapons experts from the United States and Russia say most of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile are kept as unweaponized liquid precursors, and thus could be neutralized in a short period of time without the risk that toxins could be stashed away by the regime for future use, or stolen by terrorists. A confidential assessment by the United States and Russia concludes that Syria’s entire arsenal could be destroyed in about nine months, assuming that Syrian officials fully cooperate with the weapons inspectors.

Weapons experts from the United States and Russia say most of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile are kept as unweaponized liquid precursors, and thus could be neutralized in a short period of time without the risk that toxins could be stashed away by the regime for future use, or stolen by terrorists.

The Washington Post reports that a confidential assessment by the United States and Russia concludes that Syria’s entire arsenal could be destroyed in about nine months, assuming that Syrian officials fully cooperate with the weapons inspectors.

This conclusion by the Russian and American experts was reached after they compared intelligence reports from the intelligence services of their respective countries.

The report submitted by the Syrian government last Saturday to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague supported the conclusions of the American and Russian experts.

The Post notes that analysts had concluded that Syria possesses more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, of which about 300 metric tons are sulfur mustard, the blister agent used in the First World War. Most of the remainder consists of chemical precursors of nerve agents, described as being “unweaponized” and in “liquid bulk” form. The White House shared the analysts’ conclusions in private briefings with weapon experts.

Experts who were not in the White House briefings said the findings are encouraging, since it is easier to destroy precursor chemicals than battlefield-ready liquid sarin or warheads already loaded with the toxin.

“If the vast majority of it consists of precursors in bulk form, that is very good news,” Michael Kuhlman, chief scientist in the national security division at Battelle, a company that has supervised the destruction of much of the United States’ cold war-era chemical stockpile, told the Post.

“Now you’re dealing with tanks of chemicals that are corrosive and dangerous, but not nerve agents. And the destruction processes for those chemicals are well in hand.”

Daryl Kimball, director of the Washington-­based Arms Control Association, said that if UN inspectors can remove even one of the sarin precursors — or the equipment used for measuring and filling — they can all but eliminate Syria’s ability to launch a chemical attack even before the stockpile is completely destroyed.

“The mixing equipment itself is essential to using chemical agents,” Kimball said. “If you prioritize the destruction of the equipment, you can largely deny Syria the ability to use these weapons again on Syrian soil.”

The United States and Russia agree on the size and nature of Syria’s chemical stockpile and on how to destroy it, but there are disagreements:

  • The two governments do not agree on the number of storage sites for chemical munitions in Syria
  • The two sides disagree on where the physical destruction of sarin and other toxins should take place. The United States wants to remove all chemical weapons from Syria as quickly as possible, in case President Bashar al-Assad changes his mind, while Russia wants the weapons destroyed on Syrian soil. Moscow said that Russia was prepared to provide troops to guard the chemicals as they are being destroyed.
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