Suddenly this week, both John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov began to pressure Syria to put its chemical weapons under international control. France is putting a resolution before the United Nations Security Council to that effect. Syria seems to have accepted.
Within the United States, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota have proposed an alternative resolution to the administration's that allows 45 days for Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Otherwise, the Senate authorizes the president to use whatever means possible to respond to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.
Aaron Stein and I have written about what it would take to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Given recent developments, here's a closer look at the next steps that would be necessary before Syria is free of chemical weapons:
A ceasefire is necessary.
None of what needs to be done can be done while people are shooting at each other. Some of the rebel factions have been calling for U.S. intervention and are expressing dissatisfaction with the new proposal. They are unlikely to agree to a ceasefire.
Syria would have to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
This is necessary in order to bring the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) – into the action. The OPCW would oversee the collection and destruction of the chemical weapons.
We don't know where all the weapons are.
We never have known where all of Bashar al-Assad's storage depots and production plants are; probably only Mr. Assad and the people closest to him have complete knowledge of the locations. Facilities have been reported in Hama, Homs, and al-Safira villages in the Aleppo region, as well suspected storage sites in Latakia and Palmyra. The Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), or Centre D'Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS, the acronym by which it is better known) in Damascus is said to oversee all chemical weapons activity. Surveillance by the U.S. and others has probably been increased recently, and more locations may be known or suspected. However, chemical weapons have probably been distributed to field positions, not all of which may be known. It will be necessary for Mr. Assad to make a declaration of his holdings.
A multinational force will be needed to secure the cw sites.
Even if a ceasefire is achieved, the civil war is not over. A great many factions are active in the anti-government forces, and some may attack anyway. The November estimate of 75,000 troops may be high for securing the site under a ceasefire, but tens of thousands would likely be needed. Two types of troops would be needed: force protection, to guard the sites, and specialists in handling chemical warfare agents to assess the condition of munitions and stored agents and prepare them for transport as necessary. Force protection might be supplied by the UN. Russia, Britain, and the United States have the specialists.
What will happen to the cw stockpiles?
First, there will be some attempts to reconcile what is found on the ground with what Mr. Assad has declared. This will mainly be the responsibility of the OPCW. Munitions will have to be brought in from the field to storage depots. Leaking munitions and containers will have to be removed and stored safely. This will be the responsibility of specialist teams, most likely from the military.
In the longer term, disposal will require teams of specialists to build and operate disposal facilities, most likely incinerators. Also possible but less desirable would be to transport the materials to Russia, which has the closest secure disposal facilities.
How long will it take?
Within the next week or so, a general plan should be presented by Russia and Syria. This would cover the points made above and perhaps others. Russia is already asking for actions from the United States in return. A resolution might be presented to the United Nations within that time. It will take longer to negotiate a cease-fire, if that is even possible. Then logistics will have to be worked out among the protective forces, the OPCW, and the specialist forces to proceed to the sites.
The most comparable recent action was the destruction of Libyan chemical weapons. Libya agreed to renounce chemical weapons in October, 2003. Action plans were drawn up by January, 2004. Libya became a party to the CWC in 2004 and presented a plan for destruction of the chemical weapons to the OPCW. Libya required assistance, both financial and technical, from the United States. The original deadline for destruction of the weapons was April 9, 2007, which has been extended twice. Libya destroyed about 54 per cent of its stockpile of sulfur mustard in 2010. The OPCW had inspectors in Libya up until February, 2011, verifying the destruction process but left as the anti-Gadhafi rebellion gathered intensity.
If all goes well, it will be a decade or more before the Syrian chemical arsenal is destroyed.
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.