Last week U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters in Abu Dhabi that the American intelligence agencies had concluded "with some degree of varying confidence" that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on a "small scale." The White House, in a letter to Congress, said that the intelligence community had "physiological samples" that indicated the use of sarin – a colorless and odorless nerve agent invented in Germany in 1938.
The Obama Administration is currently weighing its options, but has made clear that it will wait for more evidence of chemical weapons use before making a decision on military force. Senator John McCain, on the other hand, favors military action, arguing that United States should intervene even if the reports of chemical weapon use aren't true because Bashar al-Assad will likely use them in the future.
The current discourse, however, has failed to account for the complexities of dealing with Syria's chemical weapons. The disposal process will be long-term and will rely heavily on co-operation from the post-Assad government. Planning for an armed intervention must include finding, securing, and destroying Syrian chemical weapons.
Syria is believed to possess artillery shells and warheads for short-range rockets capable of delivering chemical warfare agents in several locations across the country. If the United States were to intervene in Syria, it could not rely on air power to destroy Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Airstrikes would risk releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and exposing bystanders. Syrian chemical munition depots may include processing and storage buildings, as well as bunker-type structures to store chemical precursors. Although little is publicly known about the Syrian chemical-weapons complex, there is a good chance that they are located underground, in order to prevent the release of toxic chemicals and to harden the facilities against bombing.
Thus, ground troops would have to be used to secure these facilities. The Pentagon estimates that it could take up to 75,000 troops to secure every suspected chemical weapons site. This could include having to race some of the rebel groups to the sites if the government begins to fall. The rebel groups have little or no training in handling chemical weapons and could cause significant damage in their haste to acquire the armaments.
An American effort to secure Syrian chemical weapons sites would require that the United States know where Mr. al-Assad stores his chemical munitions and precursor agents. Syria is believed to have production facilities near Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, as well as suspected storage sites in Latakia and Palmyra. The military would have to, in the fog of war, move in quickly to secure suspected facilities and find others. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, the American military did not secure the Tuwaitha nuclear facility after looting started in Baghdad, even though the facility was well known and fears about a potential Iraqi nuclear weapons program were a stated motivation for the war.
Once the facilities are found and secured, they must be made safe. Initially, a specialized team would have to check for signs of sabotage, booby traps, deliberately released agents, or other potentially hazardous situations, including war damage. After getting the all-clear, an inspection team would begin the task of accounting for Mr. al-Assad's chemical stockpile. Internal records and inventory lists would be an essential part of this, but a physical inventory would also be necessary. Current amounts of precursors and agents in storage drums and munitions would be compared with the facility's inventory lists. If a commander, for example, has failed to keep adequate records, an inspector tasked with producing an inventory of a Syrian chemical weapon facility could never state with 100 per cent confidence that none of the weapons had been stolen or used. The inventory would also serve as basis for planning the destruction of the materials.
After the stockpile has been inventoried, the weapons and stocks of agents and precursors would have to be destroyed. The inherent handling difficulties of these materials argue against shipping them to another country for destruction. The closest foreign facilities are in Libya and Russia. The materials would likely have to be airlifted because the most direct overland routes pass through unstable regions in North Africa and the Caucasus. Thus, it is far more likely that the responsible party, which may be a new Syrian government or the United States or the Russian Federation, will opt to destroy the weapons inside Syria. The United States and the Russian Federation have developed a limited number of technologies to destroy chemical weapons.
The most difficult part of destroying the weapons is separating the explosives from the highly toxic agents. Although Syrian nerve agents are believed to be stored as precursors, there have been somewhat unreliable reports that the precursors have been mixed and shells filled. Additionally, stocks of vesicants (mustard, lewisite, phosgene) and crowd-control agents are also believed to be part of the arsenal and are probably stored in bulk and in munitions.
A stable government that can provide security for the workers is necessary for building the facilities and destroying the chemical agents. The destruction would have to be overseen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the implementing organization for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Syria is not now a signatory to the CWC, but the United States and Russia are.
The entire process, from building the destruction facilities through their operation and destruction, would take years to complete. The Shchuch'ye plant in Russia, for example, has taken a decade to build and cost more than a billion dollars. The United States has also had its troubles dealing with chemical weapons disposal. At the Johnston Island facility in the South Pacific, it took American crews 14 years to incinerate more than four million pounds of nerve agents and mustard gas. Libya's experience in destroying its chemical weapons is also relevant. The quantities of chemical agents in Syria are smaller than those in Russia and United States, but five years seems like a reasonable estimate for building the facility, neutralizing the agents, and then destroying the storage and production facilities.
In the aftermath of the Iraq War, civilian officials and military planners have made clear that the United States neglected to account for the complexities of post-combat operations. Current calls for U.S. intervention in Syria ignore the potential difficulties the United States would face in dealing with Mr. al-Assad's formidable and extensive chemical weapons arsenal.
During and after combat operations, the United States would have to undertake a significant effort to find, account for, and then aid in the dismantlement of Syrian chemical weapons. The process will take a significant amount of time, require substantial resources, and entail cooperation from the post-Assad Syrian government. The process would likely be overseen by the OPCW, but the United States, and possibly Russia, would be involved in destroying Syrian chemical stockpiles.
This is one more reason why framing the cost of intervening as negligible and the commitment as limited is irresponsible, considering that work would continue for years after Mr. al-Assad is forced from power. The international community, no matter what route the Obama Administration opts to pursue, will have its hands full with Syria's chemical weapons for the next decade or so.
Cheryl Rofer supervised a team developing supercritical water oxidation for destruction of hazardous wastes, including chemical warfare agents, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. She now writes at Nuclear Diner and on Twitter at @cherylrofer. Aaron Stein is a doctoral candidate at King's College, London and a researcher specializing in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He blogs at Turkey Wonk and write on twitter at @aaronstein1.