October 3, 2013

THE ORGANIZATION for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ’s mission to Syria this week is vital. The outcome could mean that one of Syria’s most serious threats — deadly nerve agents , and the shells and bombs that carry them — may be neutralized and destroyed in the aftermath of the chemical attack on a Damascus suburb Aug. 21. At the same time, the inspectors must do everything in their power to ensure that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad does not conceal any stocks. Verification that all the chemicals are removed is essential.

Early reports suggest that Syria’s chemical weapons are stored largely in bulk, which is a modest bit of good news in this ghastly process. Neutralization and elimination of an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical agent in bulk may be easier than if the chemicals had been mixed and poured into shells and bombs. In a fast-track exercise this year, the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center developed a mobile system for neutralizing chemicals that can be set up within 10 days, is about the size of two shipping containers and can destroy from 5 to 25 metric tons of chemical agents per day. Ideally, the Syrian bulk chemicals would be shipped to a nearby country for neutralization; if necessary, the mobile units could be brought to Syria to do the job.

There are many uncertainties. Some of the Syrian chemical weapons are in shells and will be harder to destroy. Russia has a mobile unit that can deal with “weaponized” chemical agents. Russia, which joined the United States in the initiative to eliminate the weapons, has offered to deploy troops to protect the process, which may be important because such a difficult operation has never been attempted in the middle of a civil war. The inspectors, technicians and others involved will have to destroy Mr. Assad’s factories of death, remove the stocks and check for anything concealed, all while fighting continues in the streets.

We are told that Syria’s initial declaration of chemical substances for sarin, VX and mustard gas was reasonably complete, at least when compared against intelligence estimates. But the inspectors are now going in for a more complete assessment. It is critical that the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons be unexpurgated and that Mr. Assad not be allowed to reserve a supply for a future conflict or hive off any of the chemicals to Hezbollah. It will be exceedingly difficult for the small band of inspectors to be sure they’ve got everything, but it matters greatly. Only a thorough inventory and total clean-out will be sufficient to begin to hold Mr. Assad accountable for the horrific attack in August.

Meanwhile, Mr. Assad’s crimes continue. One of the villages that his forces allegedly gassed in August, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday , is surrounded by pro-regime forces who are blocking aid, including food, for 12,000 people.