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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The chaos and mendacity of Trump’s White House

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise.

In his inauguration speech on 20 January, Donald Trump used the phrase “American carnage” to ­describe the state of the US under Barack Obama. The description was correct, but President Trump had the timing wrong – for the carnage was still to come. Just a few weeks into his presidency, the real-estate billionaire and reality-TV star has become embroiled in more controversy and scandals than Mr Obama experienced in eight years. His ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US caused chaos at airports both at home and abroad and damaged America’s global standing. It was a false claim that the executive order, since suspended by the courts, would make the US safer. By alienating and stigmatising Muslims, it may well do the opposite.

The decision to pursue the policy so recklessly and hastily demonstrates Mr Trump’s appalling judgement and dubious temperament. It also shows the malign anti-Islamic influence of those closest to him, in particular his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his senior adviser Stephen Miller, and Michael Flynn, the retired general who on 13 February resigned as ­national security adviser after only 24 days in the job.

That General Flynn was the first of the president’s men to fall should perhaps not have caused surprise, given his reputation for anger and arrogance. As recently as August, the retired three-star general said that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” and falsely claimed that Florida Democrats had voted to impose sharia law at state and local level. He also led the chants of “Lock her up!” aimed at Hillary Clinton during the Republican ­National Convention, which would have been appreciated by Mr Trump then and today by those who enjoy irony.

Now General Flynn is under investigation by justice officials. He resigned over revelations in the media, most notably the Washington Post, that before taking office he had discussed US sanctions against Moscow with the Russian ambassador. It is unlawful for private citizens of the US to ­interfere in diplomatic disputes with another country.

Before standing down, General Flynn had publicly denied talking about sanctions during calls and texts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. He had also issued misleading accounts of their conversation to Vice-President Mike Pence and other Trump officials who went on to defend him. Given President Trump’s propensity to lie, General Flynn may have believed that he could get away it. As the former chief of a Pentagon spy agency, however, he should have known that the truth would come out.

The FBI had wiretaps of the ambassador’s conversations with General Flynn. In January, the acting US attorney general – later sacked by President Trump for opposing his “Muslim ban” – informed the White House that General Flynn had lied about his communications with the ambassador and was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Yet it took newspaper revelations about the intercepts to bring the national security adviser down. American carnage, indeed.

The disruptive present

How has capitalism shaped the way we work, play and eat – and even our sense of identity? Nine writers explore the cutting edge of cultural change in the latest instalment of our New Times series in this week's magazine.

The past decades have brought enormous changes to our lives. Facebook became open to the public in 2006, the first iPhone was launched in June 2007 and Netflix launched in the UK in 2012. More and more of us are ceaselessly “on”, answering emails at night or watching video clips on the move; social media encourages us to perform a brighter, shinier version of ourselves. In a world of abundance, we have moved from valuing ownership to treating our beliefs as trophies. The sexual vocabulary and habits of a generation have been shaped by online pornography – and by one company, MindGeek, in particular. We cook less but love cookery shows. We worry about “fake news” as numbers of journalists decline. We have become gender consumers, treating it as another form of self-expression. These shifts in human behaviour have consequences for politics and politicians. “The question should always be,” as Stuart Hall wrote in 1988, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?” The question is even more apposite today.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times