Although the mission might be worth the risks, experts say, it would be costly and time-
consuming, especially if the goal included the physical destruction of what is estimated to be thousands of chemical warheads and rockets as well as hundreds of tons of liquid toxins kept in bulk storage throughout Syria.
“It is doable, and potentially a great idea, but let’s not be naive,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, a Belgian arms-control researcher and writer for the Trench, a blog focusing on weapons of mass destruction. “If you can get around the legal and logistical questions, securing the stocks might be relatively easy to achieve. But if you add destruction of the munitions, you have to think in terms of years.”
Syria is thought to possess the third-largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world, after the United States and Russia, which are in the process of destroying theirs. Syria’s arsenal is thought to include sizable amounts of the deadly nerve agent sarin, as well as mustard gas and other toxins.
But until now, the Syrian government had never formally acknowledged its chemical weapons program. That changed Tuesday when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said his country is prepared to sign the international treaty governing chemical weapons, to make the location of its chemical arms facilities available to international observers and to dispose of the weapons.
The sudden commitment to openness was greeted warily by Western analysts, who noted the habitual secrecy of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. That tendency could further complicate the task of U.N. teams seeking to lock down as many as a dozen sites used for manufacturing, storage and battlefield preparation, weapons experts said.
An involved mission
Several previous international missions during the Syrian conflict have been notable failures, partly because the Assad government refused to grant access to sensitive sites and partly because spiraling violence put the foreign teams at risk.
Much remained unclear Tuesday about how — or even whether — chemical weapons inspections would occur. But several diplomats stressed the importance of a buy-in from all sides, including Assad and key rebel groups. Alexander Kalugin, Russia’s ambassador to Jordan, said any plan must involve “international inspectors” — probably from the United Nations — as well as guarantees for their physical safety.
“We are now engaged with Syrians about working out some concrete details on how to do the job,” he said by telephone from Amman, the Jordanian capital. “It’s certainly not an easy mission.”