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.