The activity has contributed to a cautious optimism among U.S. officials over the prospects for quickly dismantling the chemical arsenal. Syrian officials a week ago turned over their first inventory of chemical weapons and storage sites, a list that U.S. analysts described as detailed, although incomplete.
The records have helped shed light on a sizable Syrian stockpile that U.S. officials say contains hundreds of tons of precursors for the nerve agents sarin and VX, as well as a surprise: ricin, a highly lethal poison derived from castor beans.
“There are encouraging signals, but we are really in the first weeks of the process,” said a senior State Department official with detailed knowledge of the plans for eliminating Syria’s chemical stockpile.
Working with Russian counterparts, U.S. officials are preparing to implement a phased plan that they say could eliminate most of Syria’s capacity to produce chemical weapons within a few weeks, said the official, who, like others interviewed, insisted on anonymity to discuss the diplomatically sensitive operation.
The plan calls for physically destroying production equipment — in some cases with sledgehammers — and then using mobile decontamination machines to neutralize the chemicals themselves.
But the official, along with other U.S. officials and experts briefed on the Syrian program, acknowledged numerous potential obstacles, including the possibility that Syria could change its mind and seek to thwart or deceive the inspectors. Moreover, the Obama administration has not reached an agreement with a third government — not yet identified — to allow tons of sarin precursors to be brought to that country for destruction, the officials said.
“It could go off the rails in many ways,” the State Department official said. “But we are planning for success, under ideal or difficult circumstances.”
U.S. and Russian officials sketched out a framework for destroying Syria’s chemical stockpile during negotiations last month in Geneva, talks that found the two countries largely in agreement on the size of the arsenal and how quickly it can be destroyed. At the time, the Obama administration was threatening to launch a military strike against President Bashar al-Assad’s government as punishment for its alleged Aug. 21 sarin attack east of Damascus that killed more than 1,000 civilians.
Russian and American technical experts — some of whom had worked together on dismantling Cold War-era weapons stockpiles — have since reached agreement on a rough order of business for the Syrian mission. The highest priority, U.S. officials say, is to quickly dismantle key components of Syria’s weapons program so that Assad is effectively denied the use of his chemical arsenal, even before all its components are destroyed.