Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (logo, above) are making progress in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

OPCW

On the job. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (logo, above) are making progress in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

Syria Stockpiled 1000 Tons of Chemicals for Weapons

Rich oversees Science's international coverage.

As new details emerge about Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, work has begun in earnest to destroy its ability to use the arsenal in the ongoing civil war.

Syria’s military is thought to hold about 1000 tons of chemicals, now known to be mostly precursors for sarin and mustard gas, said Paul Walker, a chemical weapons expert at Green Cross International, at a forum held yesterday at AAAS, the publisher of ScienceInsider. That amount is comparable to the stockpiles that India and South Korea once held before renouncing and eliminating their chemical weapons.

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are now on the ground in Syria. They are assessing sites and overseeing the demolition of equipment and facilities used to produce the chemical precursors of sarin and mustard, mix the precursors, and pour the finished nerve agents into munitions. There’s a lot of “sledgehammer and bulldozer work,” Walker says. Inspectors have visited 18 of 23 weapons sites that Syria has disclosed to date, OPCW media officer Michael Luhan stated at a press conference today in The Hague. The operation, he says, is to ensure that Syria “will no longer have the capability to produce any more chemical weapons.” OPCW expects this work to be completed by 1 November, Luhan says.

That ambitious target is part of an agreement imposed on Syria last month after the United States threatened a military strike in response to a chemical weapons attack—almost certainly sarin—in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians in August. Under terms negotiated by Russia and the United States that compelled Syria to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) last month, Syria must grant OPCW inspectors “unfettered access” to sites and individuals associated with its chemical weapons program. On 27 October, Syria must deliver a final and complete declaration to OPCW, and its entire arsenal must be eliminated by 1 July 2014.

OPCW faces some stiff challenges. The operation is “historic and precedent-setting” because “it’s the first time WMD destruction has been undertaken in a hostile environment,” says Michael Moodie, a senior specialist at the Congressional Research Service and co-founder of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute. He notes that Syria’s foreign minister recently claimed that one-third of the chemical weapons sites are in contested zones. And while experts hail Syrian authorities for their cooperation thus far, Moodie says it’s an open question “whether that will continue” if the rebels make gains in the civil war.

Another question is whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might attempt to hide part of his chemical weapons arsenal like his now-ousted counterparts in Iraq and Libya did. “Saddam and Qaddafi stashed some of their stock for a rainy day,” notes Chen Kane, manager of Middle East projects at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, D.C. A more likely concern, Moodie says, is incomplete record-keeping. “Maybe they don’t know where it all is,” he says. Albania and Libya are cases in point: Long after destroying their known stockpile, Albanian authorities discovered a stash in the mountains that they didn’t know about, Walker says. And inspectors never found Qaddafi’s hidden stash—it came to light by chance, he says. “Nobody went looking for it.”

One big break in Syria is the nature of its stockpile. Unlike the United States and Russia, whose stockpiles are mostly weaponized—the agents are in the munitions—experts believe Syria’s “is almost all precursors,” Walker says. That means much of the chemicals can be shipped out of Syria for disposal, making it more realistic to meet the goal of chemically disarming Syria by mid-2014. Most countries approached by OPCW have refused to accept shipments; Walker says the four “that haven’t said no” are Albania, Belgium, France, and Norway. It’s unclear where inspectors will draw the line between chemical weapons precursors and chemicals for peaceful uses. Dual-use chemicals include isopropyl alcohol—a precursor of sarin—and ethylene, a precursor of mustard agent. That’s why the initial priority is “getting rid of the weapons themselves and the mixing facilities,” Walker says.

OPCW will have to raise “well over $100 million” to get the job done, Walker says. “I’m optimistic it will go well,” he says. If the operation succeeds, that would leave three countries not party to the CWC presumed to hold chemical weapons: Egypt, Israel, and North Korea. Seven countries that have declared chemical weapons, apart from Syria, have largely destroyed their stockpiles. Albania and Iraq, like India and South Korea, are now chemical weapons-free. Libya, Russia, and the United States have destroyed much of their arsenals.

Defanging Syria could have regional consequences. Pressure will rise on Egypt and Israel to come clean, Kane notes. “There’s no reason for them to remain outside the treaty,” Walker says. And if they do, that would leave one known hot spot for chemical weapons. “We know North Korea has a very large stockpile,” Walker says. That will be one tough nut to crack.

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