Chemical weapons plan needs Syrian co-operation

Regime ought to be able to produce inventory within one-week deadline

UN chemical weapons experts wearing gas masks inspect one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus’ suburb of Zamalka – “the  US has estimated that Syria possesses approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical agent such as the neurotoxin Sarin and other variants including VX gas.” PHOTOGRAPH:  REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ABDULLAH

UN chemical weapons experts wearing gas masks inspect one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus’ suburb of Zamalka – “the US has estimated that Syria possesses approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical agent such as the neurotoxin Sarin and other variants including VX gas.” PHOTOGRAPH: REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ABDULLAH


The US and Russian plan for the inventory, destruction and monitoring of Syria’s chemical weapons capacity is ambitious. Bashar Assad’s regime has been given one week to declare a full and “comprehensive” list of its arsenal of chemical weapons.

The US has estimated that Syria possesses approximately 1,000 metric tons of chemical agent such as the neurotoxin sarin and other variants including VX gas. When weaponised, these agents are stored as liquids or gels.

In Assad’s case, the majority of the nerve agent has been used as a liquid-fill for standard, 155mm artillery shells. Each artillery shell weighs about 50kgs and contains approximately seven litres of sarin or VX gas – in pressurised, liquid form. When the shell is fired from a conventional artillery piece, it detonates on impact, releasing a deadly cloud of nerve agent in liquid, aerosol or gas form.

Based on the US estimate, Assad therefore might possess as many as 100,000 such shells. This is larger than previous international intelligence estimates which numbered the chemical arsenal at about 50,000 artillery shells.

The Syrian army is also believed to have 50-100 ballistic missiles – such as Russian-made Scud C missiles – each capable of carrying a 770kg chemical warhead.

If these estimates are correct, despite the relatively high numbers involved, the Assad regime ought to be able to produce an inventory of their weapon stocks well within the one-week deadline. Artillery shells are normally stored in the thousands or tens of thousands.

In the Middle East, in countries such as Iraq and Syria, where much of the ordnance and engineering is Russian in origin, so-called “chemical shells” are stored in ammunition storage “igloos”. These are massive concave, concrete structures with walls 12ft thick, normally buried underground.

Protective igloos
These igloos are designed to withstand a direct hit from an enemy rocket or missile. As subterranean structures, they also avoid the extremes of temperature experienced in Syria and allow for the storage of volatile chemical agents.

Syria is believed to have 20 such storage facilities for chemical weapons. Over the past year, both the Russian and US governments, independently, have stated that Assad has concentrated his chemical weapons stocks into a smaller number of secure locations in Syrian Arab Army- and Alawite-controlled strongholds.

When the UN’s special commission or UNscom was established to locate, destroy and monitor Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons, its operation was split into three phases. The first, the survey phase (where weapons inspectors seek to inventorise and locate chemical weapons silos) took approximately two months from the adoption of UN Resolution 687 in April 1991.

This initial phase took place in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. By June 9th, 1991, the first weapons inspectors from the fledgling UNscom were inspecting and securing Saddam’s chemical weapons igloos.

UNscom has since been replaced by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNmovic). With the advent of UNscom and UNmovic, there is a considerable international pool of experienced weapons experts which could be called on to implement the Kerry/Lavrov agreement in Geneva. Many of these weapons experts are Irish army officers with previous experience in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The second phase of a regime of international weapons inspection – such as that employed in Hussein’s Iraq and as envisaged by Kerry and Lavrov – consists of a destruction phase. The Geneva agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons suggests that Assad’s chemical weapons be destroyed in situ or removed from Syria within a year.

When UNscom and UNmovic teams uncovered stockpiles of chemical shells in Iraq similar to the liquid-filled 155mm artillery shells used by Assad’s forces, they considered the option of destroying them in situ with high explosive charges. This was known as the “Nagasaki” option by the weapons inspection teams.

The term “Nagasaki” was used because of the sheer quantity of high explosives that would be required to detonate chemical shells in such a way that the chemical agent would be dispersed “harmlessly” into the upper atmosphere. The Nagasaki option was abandoned as it was considered too expensive and environmentally risky.

In post-war Iraq, it was decided to leave the chemical shells in place for an interim period with the intention to destroy them piecemeal in a third location. UNscom’s teams installed CCTV camera and remote monitoring systems within the igloos, sealed them, and began the final phase – indefinite monitoring.

It was hoped the chemical shells could be transported out of Iraq and disposed of over time in an environmentally friendly manner. Chemical shells are relatively stable and can be moved with relative ease in a non-hostile environment, by truck, surface vessel or aircraft. They are designed and stored in such a way as to be easily moved by pallet and forklift truck.

In theory, based on precedent, an international monitoring team could survey, take inventory of and remove Assad’s chemical weapon shells and ballistic warheads within the time-frame described by Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva.

Theatre of war
However, unlike Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Syria is convulsed in a major civil war. Assad’s Syrian Arab Army regularly exchanges ground with rebel forces. It is therefore not an environment conducive to the unimpeded, unrestricted movement of weapons inspectors and stockpiles of highly dangerous weapons of mass destruction.

In this environment, for any international mission to succeed, the technical and logistical challenges are significant. The crucial component for the success of this proposed intervention is co-operation and trust. Much will depend on the Assad regime and the ability and willingness of the Syrian Arab Army to support the mission.

The key question of trust will become a lightning-rod issue. The US does not trust Bashar al-Assad. Assad claims not to trust Barack Obama. The Obama administration is wary of Vladimir Putin. In this context, Obama’s “red-line” threat of air and missile strikes would appear to remain as an option of last resort.

Dr Tom Clonan is a security analyst.

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