For Syrian Weapons, Quick-and-Dirty Beats Slow-and-Steady

It’s better to act quickly with the chemical weapons than slowly and steadily.

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Now that Syria has ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international community's focus is shifting to how to destroy the country's stockpiles of chemical weapons. The choice is simple: either the slow and methodical approach stipulated by the treaty that could take up to 10 years or more, as it has in the U.S., Russia and other countries; or a faster, cheaper approach that has been used in other countries such as Iraq after the Gulf War.

In a country in the middle of an ongoing civil war and without any existing infrastructure or expertise, 10 or more years is far too long to achieve this critical national security goal. Time is of the essence in Syria, as the parameters of the deal brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggest that all of Syria's chemical weapons must be destroyed or removed by mid-2014. There are certainly dangers inherent in such a hasty approach – but the international community might not have the luxury of a more leisurely timeframe.

The quick and dirty approach has one main advantage: It's, well, a rapid way to get rid of chemical weapons. For example, the leader of the Iraq Survey Group, Charles Duelfer, points out the process to destroy Iraq's chemical weapons stockpiles in the 1990s was "dig a pit, put in diesel fuel, and blow the stuff up." It's also cheap: Duelfer noted Iraq's stockpiles of chemical weapons that were not bombed into oblivion by the allies during the Gulf War were destroyed for under $10 million. Moreover, quite a bit of it was destroyed in a short amount of time: "480,000 liters of live chemical weapons agent, 28,000 chemical munitions and approximately 1.8 million liters, and over 1 million kilograms of some 45 different precursor chemicals" were destroyed in less than two years.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Such financially and time-efficient means have consequences, however. Many of the Iraqis tasked with destroying these weapons did so without appropriate protective gear, substituting sandals and scarves for hazmat suits. Additionally, such a hasty and haphazard approach meant that entire bunkers were bulldozed over or buried under concrete, kicking the proverbial can (albeit one filled with deadly weapons) to future generations.

There is the ongoing problem with record keeping – when a country is destroying so much material, it's easy for a few tons of lethal chemicals to be overlooked. For instance, Libya destroyed its chemical weapons stockpiles unilaterally in 2004, following a similar "bury-and-bulldoze" approach. But so quickly and cheaply did Moammar Gadhafi dispose of his weapons that some were unaccounted for until after Libya's civil war in 2011, when the new Libyan government found a hidden cache of hundreds of artillery shells filled with mustard gas.

But while there are manifold environmental and safety concerns with quick disposal, the Syrian civil war necessitates quick, decisive action. The international community might not have the luxury of decades to destroy these chemical weapons, as it does in the U.S. or Russia. 

The U.S. and other countries routinely send technical experts to countries to help safely dispose of chemical weapons, but safety concerns in Syria may preclude that option. Technical experts require security escorts – boots on the ground, if you will – who can be drawn into the conflict.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Vote to Strike Syria?]

More importantly, the current government of Bashar Assad has acceded to international pressure and signed the chemical weapons ban. There is no telling who will rule Damascus in one, two or 10 years from now. The Syrian opposition remains fragmented, and it remains unclear whether they will honor the agreements signed by Assad. Furthermore, the danger of a long, drawn-out process is that political will and diplomatic attention will wander elsewhere, to the next inevitable foreign policy crisis.

Even worse, al-Qaida affiliates fighting alongside the Syrian opposition threaten the national security interests of the United States. An incrementally slow, methodical approach to disposal would actually give al-Qaida more time to captures these weapons.

The fast process to destroying Syria's chemical weapons is not a perfect solution. The safe-and-secure method is preferable in a textbook world. However, given the dangers posed by these weapons and the chaos that currently reins in Syria, to destroy Assad's chemical weapons stockpile with alacrity is, sadly, might be the only palatable path forward.

Faris Alikhan is a national security fellow at the Third Way.

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