The agreement brokered between the USA and Russia on the transfer and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons by mid 2014 is not just ambitious, but almost certainly unachievable. The United States and Russia have been gradually destroying their own stocks of chemical weapons since 1997 and have so far missed all deadlines and far exceeded their allotted budgets, and that's without an on-going civil war to complicate matters.
Although Syria was praised for delivering information about the location of its chemical arsenal to the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), giving full access to its chemical weapons facilities is likely to be complicated by the chaotic security situation on the ground. Efforts to access and destroy Syrian chemical weapons capabilities will also rely upon Assad's compliance in granting full access to its stocks of chemical munitions, agents and production facilities. Would you trust a man who shoots poison gas at his own people?
There have already been numerous reports that the regime has moved its stockpiles within Syria and perhaps even transferred parts of the programme out of the country, possibly to Assad's Lebanese ally Hezbollah, whose military wing was designated a terrorist organisation by the European Union in July.
The logistical challenge of disarming a regime of chemical weapons whilst it is fighting a brutal civil war are extremely daunting. The security situation will restrict the movements of weapons inspectors, hindering or even precluding the verification and inspection phase of decommission. Syrian territory is controlled by myriad groups with battle lines often fluid between the regime, the FSA-led opposition, the al-Qaeda affiliates 'al-Nusrah' and the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' and Kurdish militias. Assad is likely to cite security concerns to prohibit access to government-controlled regions and rebel groups have been known to turn back convoys of international aid. Even where they do gain access, protecting the inspectors will be difficult - as demonstrated when they came under sniper fire when carrying out the initial work after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack.
Even if these obstacles could be overcome, the technical challenges the agreement presents are numerous and daunting. The Pentagon estimates that a military effort to seize Syria's chemical weapons would require upwards of 75,000 troops. The destruction of chemical agents and munitions requires specialised plants and equipment: dozens of new destruction facilities would have to be built to cope with the size of Syria's stockpiles and technology and expertise from abroad would need to be brought into Syria. As a result, decommissioning could take at least ten years, requiring expert contractors and military personnel at a cost estimated at least at $1billion, with some estimates as high as $5billion, something Assad has made clear the US should pay for.
One former weapons inspector has told the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign affairs think tank in London that the OPCW lacks the funding and human resources required to oversee the transfer or destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. The source added that the Syrian situation is more complicated than in Libya, which despite beginning decommission in 2003 has only destroyed 55% of its mustard agent stockpile and 40% of its precursor stockpile (dual use substances also covered under the OPCW regime).
In light of all this, it is extremely difficult to see how it will be possible to implement the agreement on Syria. That is even before any discussion of the agreement's comprehensive failure to address the broader issues behind the tragedy that is Bashar Al-Assad's Syria, and his ability to prosecute a murderous war against his own people with convetional weapons.
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