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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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.