Getting Rid of Chemical Weapons Is Never Simple

Article excerpt

Past experience in Libya, Iraq will shape Syria plan

When Moammar Gadhafi renounced chemical weapons in 2003, the Libyan dictator surprised skeptics by moving quickly to eliminate his country's toxic arsenal. He signed international treaties, built a disposal facility and allowed inspectors to oversee the destruction of tons of mustard gas.

But Gaddafi's public break with weapons of mass destruction was not all it seemed. Only after his death in 2011 did investigators learn he had retained a large stash of chemical weapons. In a hillside bunker deep in Libya's southeastern desert, Gaddafi had tucked away hundreds of battle-ready warheads loaded with deadly sulfur mustard.

The story of Gaddafi's deception now looms over nascent efforts to devise a plan for destroying the chemical arsenal of Syrian President Bashar Assad, another strongman who, in a stunning reversal, agreed in principle last week to give up his stockpile under U.S. and Russian pressure.

Arms control experts say the experience of Libya and other former chemical weapons states such as Iraq could be instructive -- in ways good and bad -- as diplomats map out a path for finding, securing and destroying Syria's estimated 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents. Many also fear clearing Syria of its chemical weapons could prove to be uniquely challenging, in part because the inspectors would be dropped into the middle of a war zone.

"Never has there been an experience like this one," said Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based non-profit. "With Syria, you have a country that did not even acknowledge having chemical weapons until recently. It had no intention of giving up its arsenal until there was a threat of military force. The schedules are being accelerated. And there's a civil war going on."

The task of eliminating weapons as dangerous as sarin or VX can be onerous even in the best of circumstances. The United States, which agreed 20 years ago to eliminate its vast, Cold War-era stockpile, still has not completed the task despite spending billions of dollars on state-of-the-art incinerators. Russia, too, is years behind schedule in eliminating an arsenal that once contained 40,000 metric tons of toxic compounds. A handful of other countries, including Japan, India and Albania, have also destroyed their chemical arsenals. …