September 14, 2013

THE CHEMICAL weapons disarmament plan for Syria hammered out in Geneva by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is unprecedented. Removing these dangerous weapons in a civil war would be a significant accomplishment. But the joint effort by Russia, the United States and United Nations must not distract from a larger strategy to end the battles of bullets and bombs that have cost 100,000 lives.

The most striking aspect of the agreement, announced Saturday, is its broad scope. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov committed to liquidating the entire Syrian chemical weapons arsenal and manufacturing complex: production, filling and mixing equipment; full and empty weapons and delivery systems; chemical agents not yet weaponized; precursor chemicals; and material and equipment for research and development. This would make it very difficult — if not impossible — for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to restart a chemical weapons program. Missing, but perhaps obtainable later, are the historical records and plans for the chemical weapons complex, which can be essential in verification.

Syria has pledged to join the Chemical Weapons Convention this week. This normally starts a series of events, beginning with a declaration of weapons stockpiles within 30 days. However, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov seek extraordinarily fast action for extraordinary times. The agreement calls for the first declaration within a week, completion of on-site inspections and destruction of the production and filling equipment by November and complete elimination in the first half of next year. While the sense of urgency is laudable, the timetable may be unrealistic. Previous attempts to safely destroy chemical weaponshave required years of effort.

The factories of death in Syria probably will have to be destroyed in place, which can be done by filling reactors with concrete, welding tight the plumbing and other methods. The chemicals inside the weapons — the sarin and VX nerve agents, for example — are extremely potent; destroying them will be difficult. The agreement wisely suggests removing these bombs and shells from Syria altogether. Both the United States and Russia have experience destroying them. The remaining agents and precursors that are not in weapons might be neutralized inside Syria by chemical processes that would render them less dangerous. The Kerry-Lavrov agreement includes a commitment to ensure stringent verification, backed up by possible United Nations action if there is cheating.

For all the horror of chemical weapons and the gruesome photographs and videos of the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus, we must not lose sight of the larger suffering in this two-year-old war. United Nations investigators reported Friday that Mr. Assad’s forces are systematically attacking hospitals and denying treatment to the wounded in opposition-controlled areas, just another reminder of the brutality of this conflagration. The United States and Russia, at loggerheads so long over Syria, should put more muscle into ending it.