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Syrian Chemical Weapon Disposal: Confronting the Challenges

Commentary, 3 October 2013
Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
This week, a UN inspection team begins the onerous task of monitoring and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stock. A former UN weapons inspector charged with the destruction of Iraq’s stockpiles highlights the challenges ahead.

This week, a UN inspection team begins the onerous task of monitoring and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stock. A former UN weapons inspector charged with the destruction of Iraq’s stockpiles highlights the challenges ahead.

By Garth Whitty 

Chemical Weapons Inspectors Iraq

The Iraq Inspection Regime

In January 1992, the planning for the destruction of Iraq’s chemical weapons stockpile, bulk chemical warfare [CW] agent, CW agent precursor chemicals and associated infrastructure, including dual use facilities was commenced at UN Headquarters in New York.

A cardboard box contained numerous uncatalogued photographs of weapons and facilities and despite inspection missions having made a number of trips to CW sites in Iraq, there was a dearth of data available. This was partly a consequence of the absence of a coherent filing system and partly because information garnered on UN inspection missions rather than being deposited and shared had been taken back to inspector countries of origin. The UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) staff included UN staffers and individuals seconded by contributing nations some of whom were fully committed to the UN objective while others were in place to gather intelligence for their nations or to prevent disclosure of the sources of the chemicals, equipment and expertise that had allowed Iraq to amass a substantial CW capability. 

The following month, the first Chemical Destruction Group [CDG] mission to Iraq took place and despite pre-mobilisation warnings to the contrary, and participant expectations, they did not encounter hostility from the Iraqi people nor the level of obstruction from Iraqi government officials that might have been reasonably anticipated.

Then and throughout the following months, the operational security environment for those engaged in the work of the CDG was overwhelmingly benign. It is true that cruise missile strikes in Baghdad, in response to failure of the incumbent Ba’athist regime to handover documents or facilitate inspection missions, resulted in orchestrated ‘popular’ protests against the UN and minor hindrances.  However the CDG was largely unimpeded in its ability to continue with its mission.

Early CDG missions into Iraq included the recovery and field destruction of 122mm rockets that were in such poor condition that many were ‘weeping’ their sarin nerve agent payload. Despite the danger inherent in working with potentially lethal items that in addition to the CW agent included unstable high explosive and rocket fuel, strict operating protocols ensured the safety of the CDG; the greater health hazard being posed by working in temperatures of up to 55 degrees centigrade while wearing protective respirators and chemical suits.

A visit to the 25 square kilometre Al Muthanna State Establishment for Pesticide Production near the city of Samarra – which included production facilities, laboratories, bomb damaged storage bunkers and their chemical weapons content, and CW inventory recovered from other sites – signalled the requirement for an in-country based CDG presence until the task was completed. While the CDG was focused on chemical weapon destruction, other UNSCOM missions continued to seek out further undeclared weapons, facilities and information.

The core elements in achieving success were diplomacy, operating environment and technical ability. Iraq had been defeated militarily, the world powers stood together in their insistence that all weapons of mass destruction must be put beyond use; and from the beginning, Iraqi personnel assigned to the destruction programme accepted the premise that the sooner the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile was completed, the sooner the CDG and subsequently other UNSCOM personnel would leave.

The security environment was largely benign although the degree of comfort or discomfort experienced by team members was variable and dependent on the level of previous exposure to a potentially hostile or hostile environment. Although this was the first time such a programme had been undertaken anywhere in the world, where  none of the team participants had previously been subjected to such high levels of CW contamination and potential health threatening exposure, there was a wealth of expertise and great confidence in the equipment and fellow team members in ensuring individual and collective safety.  

Challenges for Syria

Syria though is not Iraq and there have been significant CW protection, detection and destruction technology advances over the past two decades, together with the formation of an organisation dedicated to the overseeing of a chemical weapons free world, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. However, the Syrian diplomatic and security environments are vastly more complex than those experienced in Iraq. The time-frame for putting all Syrian chemical weapons beyond use is also significantly truncated compared to the work of UNSCOM and the successor UNMOVIC (UN Monitoring and Verification Commission) with the work of the Chemical Destruction Group being completed in 1994 but the search for unaccounted items continuing until 2002.  

The scale and origin of the Syrian chemical weapons programme is unclear, however it is reasonable to assume similarities with the Iraqi programme. This would suggest the embracing of chemical weapons by the Syrian Ba’athist government as ‘the poor man’s nuclear bomb’ in the 1970’s with raw materials, equipment and expertise coming from both the Soviet Union and the ‘free world’.

Agents are likely to include those that attack the nervous system, sarin, VX and tabun, the lethality of which will have reduced if they were stored for long periods, and high grade mustard blister agent with a total volume of 1000 tonnes having been suggested. chemical weapons precursors including those which are dual use, those that can also be used for non-weaponisation purposes, will add to the scale of the inventory. The carriers for the weaponised agent are likely to be predominantly 122mm rockets and 155mm artillery shells and small numbers of Scud missiles.  

It is not a given that when the OPCW goes to the UN Security Council they will receive the unanimous support necessary to undertake their mission as they would wish and compromise is likely to be dictated. In addition, the sophisticated health and safety regimes developed within the OPCW and externally since the Iraq destruction programme are likely to shape operational delivery. The freedom of movement enjoyed by UNSCOM and UNMOVIC inspectors will not be repeated, and it is not clear what leverage the current inspection regime will have. In Iraq the threat of actual military strikes were the ultimate coercion, but this will not be mandated in the case of Syria.   

Although peace negotiation overtures have been made, it is unlikely that peace will have been achieved within the agreed chemical weapons destruction time-frame. In fact a peace agreement between the Syrian government and the extreme elements of the opposition coalition seems unlikely under any circumstances. It would require the securing of chemical weapons sites or transportation to and concentration at one site under combat conditions.

Logistical Challenge

To achieve this would necessitate the commitment of a substantial military force, full co-operation of the Syrian government in declaring all sites and inventory; and pose significant logistic challenges. Cross referencing the Syrian government’s declared inventory with what other countries believe Syria possesses will be complicated and time consuming. Mission success will also be eluded if there is a mismatch between the two, or if the Syrians have destroyed weapons on their own initiative, handed them over to sympathetic countries or groups such as Hizbollah as has been suggested. . It is probable that should a ‘guard force’ be agreed, nations will not be queuing to contribute and of those who did some would be blocked by the signatories for political reasons.

In the event these challenges are overcome, the chemical weapons would have to be destroyed on-site at storage facilities, at a central concentration site to which all CW had been transported  outside Syria. The latter option, while potentially the quickest way of denying further use of chemical weapons, would also be the most complex commencing with identifying a recipient country acceptable to the parties and willing to receive weapons of mass destruction. In 1992 it took six months to design, build and commission a destruction furnace and a caustic hydrolysis facility. And while there are now portable plant chemical weapons destruction units available, it is likely that there will be a significant delay from the passing of the resolution to commencement of destruction.

The technical elements of the destruction process are a series of straight forward steps requiring location, securing, identification, accounting, rendering safe, transportation, disassembly and final disposal. All this while safeguarding the personnel involved, the local population, the national livestock herd and the wider environment.

The diplomatic and security challenges are far greater and undoubtedly there will be obstruction, obfuscation, difficulty in achieving the necessary staffing levels, a lack of consensus. Moreover, though we would all wish otherwise, there is the strong possibility that it may be a 'mission impossible' and then a return to the UN Security Council will be called for, with the possibility of the sanctioning of air strikes which result in collateral damage including the release of chemical warfare agent into the atmosphere with a deleterious impact on the health of people whether pro or anti-Syrian government.

It is also within the bounds of credibility, in a country that has witnessed the overrunning of government facilities and members of the government forces changing their allegiance in favour of opposition groups (as the Syrian government claims), that the opposition do indeed now hold chemical weapons inventory beyond the reach of inspection and destruction teams. In the meantime Islamic Jihadists and Christian fundamentalists prepare for Armageddon which according to their respective prophesises is centred on Damascus.

In 1992 Garth Whitty, a British Army Bomb Disposal Officer with extensive experience of chemical weapons disposal, was seconded to the UN Special Commission to Iraq and tasked with the establishment of an international team charged with the destruction of Iraq's chemical weapon stockpile and associated infrastructure. 

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