Syrian Chemical Weapons Disposal: Between Distrust and Playing Chicken

On September 9th 2013, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed that Syria’s alleged chemical weapons (CW) stockpile be put under international control. The Russian proposal is intended to avert a U.S.-led military strike on Syria in the wake of the reported mass use of CW by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on August 21, 2013. While continuing to deny that it used chemical weapons against opposition targets in densely populated areas in and around Damascus, the Assad regime has signed on to the plan. The proposal also enjoys the support of China, the United Nations and Syria’s main regional ally Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to throw his support behind the plan and has backed a UN Security Council draft resolution presented by France to put the Russian plan into action.

It goes without saying that there is extreme skepticism in the West about the plan’s sincerity, let alone its chances for success. Critics of the Russian proposal have described the move as a stalling tactic by Moscow in a bid to buy breathing room and time for its Syrian allies. Others doubt a plan that would be time and resource intensive in a Syria wracked by civil war with very real risks when it comes to the safety of any potential international observers, let alone whether CW accounting and disposal can take place in areas that are in or near an active warzone.

Whether or not this effort can and will have a chance of success will depend on whether local, regional and international forces are truly sincere about pursuing a political outcome in Syria – a path that both the United States and Russia ultimately support. Should the initiative fail, a reluctant U.S. Administration may once again feel that it has little choice but to push for an uncertain military response in Syria.

No one current has any clear idea of what plan or plans will ultimately be presented to at the UN, or whether any plan will prove acceptable. The most developed plan that has been reported upon so far is the Russian plan. However, while reports indicate that Moscow has conveyed a four part plan to the US on how to bring Syria’s chemical weapons under international safeguards prior to their disposal, there are no verifiable and complete accounts of the plan in the public domain so far.

Agence France Press – citing Russia’s Kommersant daily – has reported that the proposed plan may include four stages:

·         Stage one: Syria joins the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

·         Stage two: the Syrian government must declare the location of Syria’s CW arsenal and CW production sites.

·         Stage three: the Syrian government allows OPCW inspectors access to examine Syria’s CW arsenal and production sites.

·         Stage four: In cooperation with OPCW inspectors, a decision will be taken on how to destroy Syria’s CW arsenal.

Russia has made it clear that it opposes any enforcement provisions that could authorize the use of force. It is unclear how quickly the Syrian government intends to or will move on full compliance with the OPCW. It is also unclear whether or not the Syrian government will offer an exhaustive accounting of its CW inventory and production sites, let alone whether it will grant OPCW or other inspectors full and unfettered access. Lastly there will be hard questions about how Syria’s CW disposal will be conducted and by whom. The OPCW is likely to encounter great difficulty in pursuing such a mission in Syria in the middle of a civil war. Key UN Security Council P5 states such as the US and Russia can also be expected to be heavily engaged in the inspection and disposal of Syria’s CW arsenal.  

The end result is to illustrate the uncertainties now surrounding any program to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons and their spillover effect on the Syrian civil war. Russian involvement in any effort to dispose of Syria’s stockpiles could be reassuring to the government of Bashar Al-Assad. By contrast, it is likely to frustrate Syrian opposition factions that either distrust Moscow or stand against Russian interests in Syria.

A preeminent US role is likely to be opposed by supporters of the Assad regime – if not the regime itself. Syrian and regional dividing lines all but ensure that both the US and Russia may have to play an important role in the disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, should the plan enjoy the full support of a UN Security Council resolution. Despite divisions on Syria, US-Russian cooperation on CW disposal is not without precedent: although the effort involved many different technical and negotiating pressures, the two countries had to work together for more than a decade in an effort to draw down and safely destroy their combined 70,000 metric ton stockpile.

There is a great deal of data in the open source on the general guidelines for chemical weapons (CW) disposal. Incineration and neutralization – often through chemical decomposition – are the main methods used. Incineration is a process wherein chemical agents are destroyed, often at temperatures in excess of 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. There are other steps to factor in when an agent is enclosed in a delivery system (mortar, bomb etc.) but the process remains largely straightforward.

The other normal means of dealing with CW disposal is through neutralization. Neutralization – in most cases – is used for bulk disposal. One way this works is through the mixing of agents with sodium hydroxide and hot water.  Neutralization was used in the United States for bulk agent disposal in the states of Maryland and Indiana. For more on incineration and neutralization, see the U.S. Army’s Chemical Materials Activity (CMA) and Chemical Agent Munition Disposal System (CAMDS).

Under ideal circumstances wherein the support of the country or actor in possession is assured and a broadly complete account of inventory exists, CW disposal can be very straightforward. The U.S. government, for example, has helped the Russian Federation with infrastructure and facilities geared toward CW disposal, including a nerve agent destruction facility at Shchuch’ye in the mid-to-late 2000s. In the early 1990s at the close of the Cold War, the United States had a chemical weapons stockpile of its own of some 30,000 metric tons.

Under the auspices of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, both countries committed to dispose of their CW holdings by 2012. However, neither country has been able to abide by that timetable. Thanks to external support, by 2012 Russia was able to reduce its 1997-reported 40,000 metric ton stockpile by some 60%. Russia is expected to have completed disposal efforts by 2015, and the United States is reported to be on course for complete disposal by 2021.

In Syria’s case, it may also be possible to use less conventional means. Moving weapons to isolated desert areas could allow for far less time consuming methods of destruction with limited risk and only local environmental effects. This would rely on combinations of explosives and burning agents with careful monitoring of wind and air movement conditions and distance from aquifers, particularly if done early enough in the day for heat and solar radiation to have maximum effect. The disposal effort will have to carefully consider the trade-off between ideal forms of destruction or neutralization and taking months or years to dispose of weapons that may be seized or stolen, or hidden and dispersed, and leaving stocks that might be used in some last desperate effort by either side.

Syria is not suspected of having CW or chemical precursors anywhere near the scale of Russian or U.S. Cold War stockpiles. Unclassified Western reporting gives some sense of the size and composition of Syria’s CW stockpiles, but with uncertain degrees of certainty. According to declassified French intelligence reports, Syria is allegedly in possession of more than 1,000 tons of chemical agents and precursors. This is reported to include several hundred tons of sulfur mustard, several tens of tons of VX – one of chemical warfare’s most toxic agents – and several hundred tons of Sarin gas – which is reported to represent the bulk of Syria’s CW arsenal. A translation of key portions of the French report – which is the most detailed report by any actual intelligence agency – states that:

The Syrian chemical program

Syria has long been equipped with a massive chemical arsenal, together with many related delivery systems. The Syrian regime acknowledged as much on July 23, 2012 through its Foreign Affairs spokesperson, who confirmed that: “these different weapons [chemical and non-conventional] are stockpiled and secured under the supervision of the armed forces.”

Syria is not party to the 1993 Convention on Chemical Weapons Ban, which 189 Nations have signed and ratified. The Syrian chemical program started in the 1970’s by the import of chemical munitions. In the 1980’s, Damascus started acquiring the materials, products and knowledge necessary to set up an autonomous and massive production capacity in that field.

Nature of the Syrian chemical arsenal

With above 1,000 tons of chemical agents and precursor chemicals, Damascus has one of the most important operational stockpiles in the world, without any perspective of programmed destruction in the absence of a Syrian willingness to join the CCWB.

The Syrian arsenal is particularly massive and diversified. It includes:
  • Several hundreds of tons of sulfur mustard, stockpiled in its final form.
  • Several tens of tons of VX. VX is the most toxic among the known chemical warfare agents.
  • Several hundreds of tons of sarin, representing the bulk of the arsenal.
Sarin and VX are neurotoxic organophosphorous compounds which are partly stocked in a binary manner, i.e. kept as two distinct chemical products, called precursor chemicals, which are mixed just before use. Such a technique and related processes reveal a high level of know-how in the chemical weapons technology by the Syrian regime. Syrian scientists have also worked on nitrogen mustard, a first generation vesicant agent, as well as neurotoxic organophosphorous compounds with toxicity levels higher than sarin.

Means of delivery

Damascus is in a position to deliver its chemical weapons through [the use of] several thousand launchers:
  • Scud C missiles, with a range of 500 km, capable of delivering sulfur mustard, sarin or VX.
  • Scud B missiles, capable of delivering sarin or VX at a 300 km range.
  • M600 missiles, with a range between 250 and 300 km. They too can deliver the three already mentioned toxic agents.
  • SS21 missiles, adapted to carry the three mentioned chemical warfare agents, at a limited range (70 km).
  • Air launched bombs with a payload of sarin. Depending on the model, they can deliver between 100 and 300 liters of toxic agent.
  • Artillery rockets, particularly 302 and 320 mm, aimed at delivering sulfur mustard, sarin or VX at a shorter range (50 km and under).
Some missiles are able to deliver several hundred liters of toxic agents.

Activities monitored for several years on Syrian test sites indicate that new dispersal mechanisms are being studied. Since the beginning of the conflict, our intelligence confirms the use by the regime of ammunitions carrying a lesser volume of chemical agents, adapted to more focused and local tactical use.

Capability to deliver chemical agents by Syrian vectors
  • SCUD C: VX – Sarin – Yperite – Range: 500 km
  • SCUD B: VX – Sarin – Range: 300 km
  • M600: VX – Sarin – Yperite – Range: 250-300 km
  • SS21: VX – Sarin – Yperite – Range: 70 km
  • Bombs: Sarin
  • Rockets: VX – Sarin – Yperite – Range: 50 km
  • Other tactical munitions: Sarin – Range: below 50 km.
We cannot exclude that such tests may also have been conducted with other categories of chemicals diverted from their civilian use and used at lethal doses.

Chain of Command

Syria’s chemical weapons program is centered on the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques (CERS), which is tasked with supervising and implementing the production chemical warfare agents.

CERS’ Branch 450 is responsible for filling munitions with chemical weapons. Branch 450 is also tasked with maintaining safeguards, securing chemical weapons installations and protecting Syria’s overall inventory. Fiercely loyal to the Assad regime, Branch 450 draws 100% of its manpower from the ruling Alawite community.

Only President Bashar Al-Assad and a few of the most influential members of the Assad clan are capable of issuing a direct order for the use of chemical weapons. The order is then passed on to the relevant branches of the CERS. In parallel to any such order, the Syrian Armed Forces command would also receive orders and take steps to put together a target list and determine which chemical weapons should be brought online for use in combat.

U.S. open sources reporting and analysis by the Congressional Research Service offer little additional detail on the scale and scope of Syria’s chemical weapons. Some reports list four suspected CW production sites north of Damascus, in Hama, near Homs and in Cerin. While some satellite imagery has emerged of alleged CW storage facilities, there is no complete or reliable account of Syria’s CW infrastructure in the public domain. In addition, no reliable public account exists in terms of storage sites, facilities where CW are mixed or transferred to delivery systems.

It is likely that the U.S. intelligence community and partners in Europe, Turkey and the Middle East have more reliable metrics on Syria’s CW holdings. However, it is for these and other reasons that it is important to remember that any intelligence on Syria’s CW stockpiles is – at best – an incomplete assessment based on an amalgamation of satellite, human, signals, third party and open source intelligence collection. Moreover, U.S. experts indicate that Syria has relocated at least some of its chemical weapons since the President first threatened to strike Syria.

Whether or not CW disposal is difficult or easy is not the point. Should Russia’s proposal to put Syrian CW stockpiles under international control crystalize, it would offer the U.S. Administration a ladder to climb down from what remains a largely reluctant and unpopular U.S. call for a military response in Syria. Regardless of the intent of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement in London on September 9, 2013, the Russian proposal would not have been possible without the tacit backing of both the Assad regime and – more critically – Syria’s chief regional ally Iran. Beyond CW use and disposal, in the best case, this effort has the best chance of any effort since the 2012 Geneva Conference to inject some pragmatic interest-based bargaining and diplomacy in a conflict that has been steadily climbing the local, regional and international escalatory ladder for more than two years.

Before one can even get to international control – let alone the road to disposal – much can still go wrong. The road to a UN Security Council resolution on Syria has been one of almost three years of discord. The initial push to support a French UNSC resolution on Syrian CW has been positive, and there is speculation that it may pass the scrutiny of Russia and China. Whether any of this will come to pass in a way that competing factions in the Security Council can all back remains to be seen. Meanwhile, while many are hopeful that the Russian proposal may lead to a political opening on Syria at the level of international forces backing either the regime or opposition factions, there is very little faith in the West and among regional allies that Assad can be trusted to abide by such an effort. Many also continue to suspect that this effort may be little more than a smokescreen by Russia and its allies to buy time for the Assad regime.

Playing geopolitical chicken in Syria is dangerous; dangerous for the United States, for Russia, for Iran, for the Assad regime and its opponents in the Gulf. Like Lebanon and Iraq before it, Syria cannot be viewed in a regional vacuum. The dangers of escalation in Syria cannot be divorced from Iran’s own security concerns and the need to stand by Assad or respond to a major military strike in Syria.

Even if it takes time, any UN-backed effort to put Syrian chemical weapons under international safeguards will either positively impact or further complicate Syria’s civil war. Which of those two plays out depends on broad international agreement and real world positive engagement by the Assad regime. Neither has been a hallmark surrounding the Syria conflict. That does not mean, however, that this initiative should not be explored in full. The alternative may still be an unpredictable and destabilizing military response to a conflict that – in the end – will still need a political outcome.

Aram Nerguizian is a Senior Fellow with the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Aram Nerguizian
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Burke Chair in Strategy