The story of Gaddafi’s deception now looms over nascent efforts to devise a plan for destroying the chemical arsenal of Syrian President Bashar al-
Assad, another strongman who, in a stunning reversal, agreed in principle last week to give up his stockpile under U.S. and Russian pressure.
Arms control experts say the experience of Libya and other former chemical weapons states such as Iraq could be instructive — in ways good and bad — as diplomats map out a path for finding, securing and destroying Syria’s estimated 1,000 metric tons of chemical agents. Many also fear that clearing Syria of its chemical weapons could prove to be uniquely challenging, in part because the inspectors would be dropped into the middle of a war zone.
“Never has there been an experience like this one,” said Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. “With Syria, you have a country that did not even acknowledge having chemical weapons until recently. It had no intention of giving up its arsenal until there was a threat of military force. The schedules are being accelerated. And there’s a civil war going on.”
The task of eliminating weapons as dangerous as sarin or VX can be onerous even in the best of circumstances. The United States, which agreed 20 years ago to eliminate its vast, Cold War-era stockpile, still has not completed the task despite spending billions of dollars on state-of-the-art incinerators. Russia, too, is years behind schedule in eliminating an arsenal that once contained 40,000 metric tons of toxic compounds. A handful of other countries, including Japan, India and Albania, have also destroyed their chemical arsenals.
Yet weapons experts point to the successes in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War and, ultimately, in Libya — two countries in which inspections teams overcame obstacles on their way to destroying large chemical arsenals. Iraq’s weapons programs were scrutinized by two separate U.N.-
appointed inspections regimes, one from 1991 to 1997 and another from 2002 to early 2003, before U.S. forces invaded the country in part because of a belief that Iraq still retained weapons of mass destruction.
In what was perhaps a preview of events in Syria, weapons officials in Iraq managed to complete the task in spite of local hostility and widespread chaos in a country shattered by war, said Charles Duelfer, a leader of the Iraq Survey Group, which searched for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The group found and secured a small quantity of abandoned and damaged chemical weapons but uncovered no evidence of ongoing programs.