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.

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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