Now that Syria’s chemical weapons—and not the fact that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad has killed over 100,000 of his own citizens over the past two years—is the main question facing American policymakers and diplomats at the UN, the issue of securing and disposing of those weapons is the new big topic in Washington.
Speaking on CNN Wednesday night, former chief UN weapons inspector and head of the Iraq Survey Group David Kay estimated that the international community would have to round up and deploy as many as 2,000 inspectors in order to get their hands around the Syrian problem.
And of course since inspectors are not trained to secure sites or provide their own security, it would be up to Syrian government forces to both guard the inspectors and secure and guard the chemical sites.
All of this would be done, presumably, by the internationally-sanctioned Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has traditionally performed these missions on behalf of the United Nations.
But never has the organization located, tagged, and disposed of chemical weapons in an active war zone, let along a chaotic civil war where multiple groups with varying loyalties and agendas violently jockey for power.
For the OPCW to even begin work in Syria, the Damascus government would first have to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which it has promised to do.
But that is when the real work starts.
“Syria has one of the largest stockpiles in the world” said James Lewis of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, though no one knows with certainty how large it is, or where all of the chemicals are stored. Once a state signs the Chemical Weapons Convention however, they have 10 years to get rid of the weapons.
But inspectors, at least, know exactly what to look for. Lewis said that they would probably start their inspections at industrial facilities where they would look for precursor materials for sarin gas, and since they know how much of the various materials could be used for non-chemical weapons usage, they would tag any excess amounts.
The fact that UN inspectors were fired on earlier this summer when they tried to do their work in Syria adds a another layer of complication, leading many to wonder if such a mission would even be possible while the civil war still rages.
For an example of just how far removed from normal operations the Syrian mission would be for inspectors, take a look at an ongoing mission the OPCW is conducting in China.
Rather than braving bullets, jihadi fighters, and criminal gangs—along with members of the Iranian Qods force which is rumored to be guarding some Syrian chemical weapons sites—a typical OPCW mission is a quiet and laborious affair that takes years to accomplish, and costs quite a lot of money.
The OPCW Director General Amb. Ahmet Uzumcu is currently in China to visit sites where his teams are excavating, recovering, and destroying abandoned chemical weapons that were left behind by Japanese troops during World War II.
The case also shows what a long-term process finding and destroying chemical weapons can be.
Recovery of the material began in December 2012, and destruction won’t begin until 2014, according to the group. The Japanese government is funding the effort and providing all of the technical expertise, as well as building facilities to destroy the material.
Negotiations are still in the early stages of course, but without the full buy-in from Damascus as well as guaranteed personal security for the inspectors and safe locations to do their work—including constructing new facilities to house the chemical weapons and a steady stream of funding to keep the operation afloat—the mission looks not only difficult, but close to impossible.