As difficult as it may be to reach a diplomatic solution to avert
a U.S.-led attack on Syria, the details of enforcement are also
complex and uncertain, people with experience of monitoring weapons
Spread far and wide across Syria, the chemical weapons complex of
the fractured state includes factories, bunkers, storage depots and
thousands of munitions, all of which would have to be inspected and
secured under a diplomatic initiative that President Barack Obama
says he is willing to explore.
But monitoring and securing unconventional weapons have proved
challenging in places like Iraq, North Korea and Iran -- even in
peacetime. Syria is bound up in the third year of a civil war, with
many of the facilities squarely in battlefields.
"I'm very concerned about the fine print," said Amy E. Smithson,
an expert on chemical weapons at the Monterey Institute of
International Studies. "It's a gargantuan task for the inspectors to
mothball production, install padlocks, inventory the bulk agent as
well as the munitions. Then a lot of it has to be destroyed -- in a
"What I'm saying is, beware of this deal," Dr. Smithson added.
"It's deceptively attractive."
As difficult as it may be to reach a diplomatic solution to head
off a U.S.-led military strike on Syria, the details of enforcement
are themselves complex and uncertain, people with experience of
monitoring weapons facilities said.
Syria would first have to provide specifics about all aspects of
its chemical weapons program. But even that step would require
negotiation to determine exactly what should be declared and whether
certain systems would be covered, because many delivery systems for
chemical weapons -- including artillery, mortars and multiple-
rocket launchers -- can also fire conventional weapons.
Then, experts said, large numbers of foreign troops would almost
certainly be needed to safeguard inspectors working in the midst of
the civil war.
"We're talking boots on the ground," said one former United
Nations weapons inspector from Iraq, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity because he still works in the field on contracts and did
not want to hurt his chances of future employment. "We're not
talking about just putting someone at the gate. You have to have
layers of security."
Destruction and deactivation of those weapons could then take
The Obama administration is skeptical about whether this approach
might work. A senior administration official called securing
chemical arms in a war zone "just the first nightmare of making this
A Pentagon study concluded that doing so would take more than
75,000 troops. That rough estimate has been questioned, but the
official said it gave "a sense of the magnitude of the task."
Another puzzle centers on arms movement. As President Bashar al-
Assad has lost territory, or has feared that rebels could seize the
lethal stockpile, he has consolidated his chemical weapons,
administration officials say. Thus the old estimate that
intelligence agencies offered -- of 42 separate chemical sites --
may no longer hold true.
"We only know a good deal about 19 of them," said another senior
official who has been briefed on the intelligence. Thus, doubts
could fester on whether Mr. Assad had turned over his entire
Specialists in ordnance disposal and demilitarization say any
effort to account for Syria's chemical weapons would require huge
investments of resources and time, and the likely assumption of
battlefield risk. The United Nations already has 110 chemical
inspectors stretched thin around the globe, and their ranks would
have to swell.
"I suspect some casualties would be unavoidable," said Stephen
Johnson, a former British Army chemical warfare expert who served
two tours of duty in the Iraqi desert. "The question you have to ask
is whether the benefits would be worth that kind of pain."
These are not, experts noted, theoretical issues that may arise,
but hard realities. …