How will Syria's chemical weapons be destroyed?

Under the deal brokered by the US and Russia in response to the Ghouta attack, Syria has pledged to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by 2014. But how will this work, and how much will it cost?

A report by UN weapons inspectors has confirmed that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Ghouta area of Damascus in August, with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon calling the attack “the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988 - and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century.”

Under the deal brokered by the US and Russia in response to the attack, Syria has pledged to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile by 2014. But how will this work, and how much will cost?

For a start, because Syria hasn’t signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, we simply don’t know for certain how many chemical weapons it possesses. US Secretary of State John Kerry said he believes Syria has around 1000 tons of chemical weapons. As part of the deal, Syria should be disclosing information on its stockpile in the next week, but this depends firstly on Syria sharing accurate and complete information with international inspectors, and secondly assumes that the Syrian government still has full control of its chemical weapons stockpile.

This DefenseNews blog reports that former chief UN weapons inspector and head of the Iraq Survey Group David Kay believes the international community would have to deploy 2000 weapons inspectors in Syria. They would then need security, which the blog suggests would be provided by the Syrian government. Whether the Syrian government is capable of providing the necessary safety guarantees is still an open question.

The actual process of destroying chemical weapons is expensive too. This Time article estimates that it cost the US government roughly $1 million to get rid of each ton of US chemical weapons. In Syria its likely to be more costly, because of the difficulty of securing chemical weapon sites, and uncertainty as to whether chemical weapons will be destroyed in Syria or first transported abroad.

Cost-wise, this might all compare favourably to a military intervention in Syria – which I discussed here – but will it be effective? Locating and destroying chemical weapons in an active war zone is a huge challenge, so this latest US and Russian initiative could easily fail on its own terms. It’s worth remembering that Libya pledged to destroy its chemical weapon stock in 2004 and invited in UN inspectors, but a hidden cache of mustard gas was found in the country in 2011. Libya is a vast, desert country, which makes easy to conceal weapons, but in 2004 it was peaceful. On top of this, even if Syria does destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, this initiative does nothing to protect civilians against conventional weapons.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon speaks to the media with UN chief weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom after briefing the Security Council on chemical weapons in Syria. Photo:Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Police in Tahrir Square. Image: Getty.
Show Hide image

The murder of my friend Giulio Regeni is an attack on academic freedom

We are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death.

The body of Giulio Regeni was discovered in a ditch in Cairo on February 2, showing evidence of torture, and a slow and horrific death. Giulio was studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and was carrying out research on the formation of independent trade unions in post-Mubarak Egypt. There is little doubt that his work would have been extremely important in his field, and he had a career ahead of him as an important scholar of the region.

Giulio, originally from Fiumicello in north-east Italy, had a strong international background and outlook. As a teenager, he won a scholarship that allowed him to spend two formative years studying at the United World College in New Mexico. He was especially passionate about Egypt. Before beginning his doctoral research, he spent time in Cairo working for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). At the age of 28, he stood out with his big hopes and dreams, and he was committed to pursuing a career that would allow him to make an impact on the world, which is a poorer place for his passing.

Those of us who worked and spent time with him are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death. While murder and torture are inherently of concern, Giulio’s case also has much broader implications for higher education in the UK and beyond.

Giuli Regeni. Image: provided by the author.

British universities have long fostered an outward-looking and international perspective. This has been evident in the consistent strength of area studies since the middle of the 20th century. The fact that academics from British universities have produced cutting-edge research on so many areas of the world is an important factor in the impact and esteem that the higher education system there enjoys.

In order to carry out this research, generations of scholars have carried out fieldwork in other countries, often with authoritarian political systems or social unrest that made them dangerous places in which to study. I carried out such research in Peru in the 1990s, working there while the country was ruled by the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori.

Alongside this research tradition, universities are becoming increasingly international in their outlook and make up. Large numbers of international students attend the classes, and their presence is crucial for making campuses more vibrant and diverse.

Giulio’s murder is a clear and direct challenge to this culture, and it demands a response. If our scholars – especially our social scientists – are to continue producing research with an international perspective, they will need to carry out international fieldwork. By its nature, this will sometimes involve work on challenging issues in volatile and unstable countries.

Universities clearly have a duty of care to their students and staff. This is generally exercised through ethics committees, whose work means that much greater care is taken than in the past to ensure that risks are managed appropriately. However, there is the danger that overly zealous risk management could affect researchers’ ability to carry out their work, making some important and high-impact research simply impossible.

Time for action

We cannot protect against all risks, but no scholar should face the risk of extrajudicial violence from the authorities. If universities are to remain internationally focused and outward-looking, we must exercise our duty of care towards our students and colleagues when they are working in other countries.

But there are limits to what academic institutions can do on their own. It is vital that governments raise cases such as Giulio’s, and push strongly for full investigations and for those responsible to be held to account.

The Italian and Egyptian authorities have announced a joint investigation into what happened to Giulio, but the British government also has a responsibility to make representations to this effect. That would send the message that any abuse by authorities of students and researchers from British universities will not be tolerated.

A petition will be circulated to this effect, and Giulio’s friends and colleagues will be campaigning on the issue in the days and weeks ahead.

Giulio Regeni’s murder is a direct challenge to the academic freedom that is a pillar of our higher education system. He is only one of many scholars who have been arbitrarily detained, and often abused, in Egypt. As a scholarly community and as a society, we have a duty to strike to protect them and their colleagues who study in dangerous places the world over.

 

Neil Pyper is an Associate Head of School at Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.