As President Barack Obama
entertainsa Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles, experts are expressing scepticism of the unprecedented task of securing and destroying a massive WMD stockpile in an active warzone.
“The Russian proposal sounds attractive, but very quickly, operational problems could derail obtaining international control, much less actually destroying the arsenal,” Amy Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C., told The Wall Street Journal.
Those operational problems involve numerous political, diplomatic, and security obstacles.
First, as Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports, the U.S. will be “relying on one of Syria’s chief weapons suppliers to disarm a regime the president has accused of gassing its own people.” (Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel even said that Russia has supplied Syria with chemical weapons.)
So step one is deciding if Putin can be trusted. The New York Times reports that “many officials, including some in the White House, wondered whether Mr. Putin was playing Mr. Obama rather than helping out.”
Russia has blamed chemical attacks in Syria on the rebels, and on Tuesday the Kremlin rejected any suggestion that a necessary U.N. Security Council resolution would blame the Syrian government for deploying chemical weapons or include a potential use of force by the West.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Russia’s plan was aimed at “knocking the legs out from under American aggression,” and several analysts think that the Bashar al-Assad’s regime could simply use the move to buy time.
Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Defence Intelligence Agency official, told USA Today that the tentative agreement “gives the regime permission to fire as much as it wants” as long as it doesn’t use chemical weapons.
After all of the negotiation obstacles comes the hard part, which is securing and destroying chemical weapons while a 30-month civil war rages on.
A senior administration official told the New York Times that securing chemical arms in a war zone “just the first nightmare of making this work.”
“It’s a gargantuan task for the inspectors to mothball production, install padlocks, inventory the bulk agent as well as the munitions. Then a lot of it has to be destroyed — in a war zone,” Amy E. Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, told The New York Times. “What I’m saying is, ‘Beware of this deal.’ It’s deceptively attractive.”
Cheryl Rofer, who supervised a team responsible for destroying chemical warfare agents at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Foreign Policy that the disarmament work “is simply too dangerous to do while people are shooting at each other.” That means there would need to be a full cease-fire between Assad and the rebels, which is highly unlikely and impossible to enforce (for the same reasons why the first one panned).
The process in Syria would be “exceedingly difficult” because, even with ceasefire, the destruction and deactivation of those weapons would take years and require tens of thousands of troops to protect inspectors.
“We’re talking boots on the ground,” said one former United Nations weapons inspector from Iraq, adding that any troops sent ot carry out the task “will be a target for someone, for one group or another. Because no matter who you are, you get mortared somewhere by one of the parties.”
Even after all of that, the plan requires trusting Assad to unveil an entire stockpile of weapons that was built over decades as a deterrent to Israel’s nuclear option.
“The Libyans basically decided to show us everything,” Paula DeSutter, who helped oversee the dismantling of Libya’s chemical-weapons program as part of the George W. Bush administration, told the Wall Street Journal. “I can’t believe this will be the case with the Syrians.”
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