Disposing of Syrian Chemical Weapons Time Consuming, Dangerous and Perhaps Impossible

U.S. goals are dangerous, time consuming and perhaps impossible in cooperating with Syrian regime.

A United Nations arms expert collects samples in Damascus' eastern Ghouta suburb on Aug. 29, 2013.
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The U.S. has taken on a gargantuan and dangerous task of helping to destroy Bashar Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria. Experts on chemical weapons proliferation say current deadlines are near impossible to reach, and the danger of transporting and eliminating the weapons in a bloody and convoluted conflict could drag the U.S. into the ongoing civil war.

The Pentagon announced this week its tentative schedule for destroying the regime's stockpiles of mustard gas, sarin gas and VX, along with their components.

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The first phase involves transporting massive amounts of these chemicals through an active war zone, in which a multitude of Islamic extremist groups are openly fighting.

The second requires a yet-unconfirmed country to then transport the chemicals -- eventually occupying roughly 150 shipping containers -- to a yet-undetermined third country, where a specially configured U.S. ship will pick them up in early January and sail them out to sea where they will eventually be destroyed.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing this mission alongside the U.N., has set a deadline for the first step by Dec. 31. The entire mission must be completed by the middle of2014.

"OPCW and the U.N. are preparing themselves for their first missed deadline," says Brian Finlay, an expert on chemical weapons proliferation with the Stimson Center. "To assume that weapons are going to be loaded and out of Syria by the end of this month is virtually impossible."

The most deadly weapons in Assad's stockpile, known as "Schedule 1," amounts to about 100 tons of weaponized chemical fluids currently contained in barrels. Few, if any, of these stockpiles are in weapons systems, such as rockets or missiles, as the absence of stabilizing chemicals used for storage quickly degrades their effectiveness.

Traveling from Damascus over land through Homs and onto the coast would be difficult in any situation, even if a convoy didn't have to cross the major fault lines of the deadliest fighting in a civil war that has raged for almost three years.

The participating groups will have to conduct extensive reconnaissance to ensure that the pavement on the Damascus-Aleppo highway or alternative routes has not been destroyed by the war, to say nothing of the security threat posed by a standing army squared off against a massive rebel force which may be comprised of as much as 25 percent Islamic extremists.

Upon arrival at the port town of Latakia, a yet-undetermined country (though Norway and Denmark have volunteered) will sail the stockpiles to another foreign port, where specially outfitted U.S. Maritime Administration industrial ship Cape Ray will take on the cargo, sail it out to international waters and begin a process of breaking the chemicals down into effluent comparable to industrial toxic waste or pesticides. The product will be then passed off to a yet-undetermined commercial firm for ultimate disposal.

"The challenges are quite a bit larger than most people assume," says Tom Moore, a chemical weapons and proliferation expert. As a former congressional staffer for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., he frequently accompanied his boss on trips overseas to oversee the implementation of the Nunn-Lugar program, which instituted the reduction of weapons of mass destruction following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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He points to a troubling calculus within Syria's civil war, in which all sides could potentially benefit from the perceived or actual theft of these chemical weapons during their transit out of Syria. The Syrian regime, as a signatory of the OPCW's Chemical Weapons Convention, is ultimately responsible for securing and transporting the weapons.

"The likelihood of their being able to do that while they continue their civil war is minimal," says Moore, now at the D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.