Sep 16, 2013

    Disarming Syria no easy feat

    THE United States-Russian deal brokered on Saturday to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons will be difficult, if not impossible, to implement, experts said, not least because of the quandary of their destruction.

    The landmark deal thrashed out in Geneva gives Syria a week to hand over details of its stockpile, which it aims to destroy by the middle of next year, a timetable that will be difficult to follow even if President Bashar Al-Assad's regime cooperates.

    "It's a wait-and-see game at this point,' said Mr Faiza Patel, a former official at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. ''We'll see how cooperative the Syrians are each step of the way, and how much political will there is in the international community to actually support this effort."

    An initial question is whether Russia can persuade Mr Assad, an ally fighting to survive, to comply.

    "The Assad regime is the essence of untrustworthiness," said Mr Fred Hof, who served as US President Barack Obama's ambassador-at-large on the Syria crisis last year.

    "Whether this agreement is an actual breakthrough depends primarily on the actions of those who own this toxic devil's brew and who have used it to kill innocent civilians."

    The deal between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was worked out without some basic facts, including the size of Mr Assad's arsenal, and how and where it might be destroyed.

    That will make it difficult to assess whether the Syrian President has disclosed all chemical-weapon infrastructure, including the quantities and locations of the munitions, chemical agents and production equipment to be designated for destruction or removal.

    "Given Mr Assad's record, there's every reason to think he will stall, that he'll exploit technicalities, and that it would be likely that he would hide some chemical weapons," said Dr Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

    Dr Olivier Lepick of the Foundation for Strategic Research said that, even when inspectors are deployed and stockpiles are found, they face the practical problem of destruction. "You have to build a factory that costs several hundreds of millions of dollars to be able to destroy the chemical weapons," Dr Lepick said.

    While destruction of specialised manufacturing equipment and unfilled chemical munitions can be done in Syria, Mr Patel said the only way to meet the deadline for chemical agents such as sarin would be to remove them from Syria.

    "If you can get those toxic chemicals to a destruction facility that is already up and running, then, yes, I think there is a decent chance that they can be destroyed within that rough timeframe," he said.