Nuclear Weapons

Before Eliminating Syria’s Chemical Weapons, One Must Find Syria’s Chemical Weapons

09.17.13 | 5 min read | Text by Christopher Bidwell

Most of the world (including the U.S.) seems to be relieved now that there is affirmative progress towards eliminating Syria’s ghastly chemical weapon (CW) stockpiles, thereby avoiding (at least for now) a military strike that no one really wanted to undertake.  The Syrian government has announced that it will soon join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  Joining the OPCW will immediately trigger an obligation on Syria’s part to issue a written declaration identifying the number and types of CWs it currently possesses.  With history as a guide, we can safely predict that it will be an incomplete and inaccurate declaration.  That is true even if Syria fully intends to come clean regarding its CW stockpile.  This is the point where good intentions can go awry.  The problem here is that no one really trusts Syria.  The consequences of such mistrust are informed by experiences in Iraq and Libya over the last 20 years.

It has never been enough to eliminate the declared CWs.  One has to eliminate all (or at least 99%) of the CWs in order to have confidence that the threat has been eliminated.  Getting that “confidence” is a very expensive and often lengthy process.  In the case of Iraq, it meant that U.N. Investigators (UNSCOM) had to spend $75 million simply to rotate a few hundred staff per year (over the first 5 years) on missions inside Iraq (this does not include millions worth of in-kind support provided by individual nations).  Worse yet, in 2003 and 2004, the U.S. spent $900 million to field the 1,500 members of the Iraq Survey Group to conduct a 15 month survey that essentially said those WMD programs Iraq once had were effectively dismantled by the U.N. teams and the IAEA.  There is a speed vs. cost ratio to be factored in here – If you want a faster determination, be prepared to pay big bucks and deploy lots of people.  As a result of both of these efforts, most of the world now accepts the idea that Iraq is WMD free.

Libya offers another example.  Ten years ago it seemed that Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi wanted to come clean.  However, after his death, a large stockpile of unaccounted-for chemical mustard rounds was discovered. This is another example of why it is necessary to conduct a thorough on the ground investigation in order to be confident that one has rounded up all the CWs. The lesson from both of these experiences is that it is never cheap.

When performing a WMD investigation in preparation for elimination of weapons, the experienced professionals know that the first job is to understand the system that built the weapons in the first place.  In a CW program there is, by definition, a large bureaucratic structure with several layers of personnel performing missions such as raw materials acquisitions, design, equipment procurement, manufacturing, management, financing, safety assurance, storage, transportation and so on.  There is not just the CW (rounds) to worry about, but delivery mechanisms (launchers) too. Dissecting the workings of a nation’s WMD infrastructure requires unending document reviews, interviews and re-interviews, and hours of facility inspections (Note: all of this means citizens of some country are going to have boots on the ground).

In the end, all aspects of the system must be accounted for and then audited before inspectors can make a determination of the potential size of the stockpile.  Only then can investigators effectively ask the right questions until such time as the numbers match up.  The other benefit of this approach is that inspectors can also dismantle the means of further production, thereby eliminating the possibility of a quick regeneration of the CW program.  While this may sound like an onerous task, at the end of the day it’s the only way to give an affirmative answer a senior policy maker’s (or the President’s) question, to whit; “have we got it all now?”

In performing the investigation tasks investigators must have leverage over the Syrians.  In other words, to be effective, the investigators must have a mechanism to compel the Syrian’s to be cooperative.  In the case of Iraq in the 1990s this meant a credible threat of military strikes if compliance was not forthcoming.  Eventually, Iraq forced the issue resulting in the Desert Fox bombing campaign of 1998.  The same scenario could play out in Syria meaning that the agreement designed to avoid airstrikes could all be for not.  However, as the Libya case shows us, the threat could also be to turn off a new benefit (such as economic cooperation, or lifting of sanctions).  In either case, credible political will by the international community must exist to back up investigator’s efforts and this too will have economic costs for the enforcer.

So now that we know how difficult and expensive it is to find all the CWs, let’s examine the costs of eliminating them.  First there is the cost of rounding up the weapons and preparing them for destruction.  One would expect the stockpiles to be moved to one or two consolidation sites – hopefully in a secure part of the country or, if the legalities can be worked out, a nearby country.  This will be tougher in Syria’s case as there is currently a hot civil war going on. This will only add to the expense.  Convoys can also become targets and that adds another dangerous dimension to the process.  Once the rounds are consolidated, there is the issue of destruction of the weapons in a way that prevents release of toxins into the environment.  If the experiences of Russia and the United States are any guide, finding and then eliminating Syria’s CWs stockpiles could eventually run into the billions.  To dispose of these weapons in the correct manner will turn out to be much more expensive than punishing the Assad regime with a few airstrikes.  While some of the war-weary Pentagon brass will be relieved by this, the Office of Management and Budget surely will not be.


Chris Bidwell is the Senior Fellow for Nonproliferation Law and Policy at the Federation of American Scientists.