Since then, Army personnel have destroyed weapons such sarin, tabun and mustard gas at plants built in remote areas of the country. The work has been painstaking and fraught with risk. Engineers and chemists who come into contact with the munitions wear protective suits. Army officials designed unique assembly-line processes for each type of munition. Last year, the military eliminated the stockpiles at all but two facilities, wiping out 90 percent of the country’s chemical weapons.
“To put the nail in the coffin on something all of us fear has been incredibly fulfilling,” said Col. John Lemondes, the chemical stockpile elimination program manager at the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity, the agency that has done the lion’s share of the work.
Drawing in part on that work, the Army created the 20th Support Command, a unit based in Edgewood, Md., that specializes in weapons of mass destruction, including chemical munitions. Its deployable team of experts has trained with the 82nd Airborne Division this year.
“Our soldiers are trained, equipped and ready to provide wherever the nation decides to send us out,” spokesman Christopher Bush said.
Testifying before Congress last spring, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that securing Syria’s chemical weapons would take a “significant intervention” if it occurred amid fighting.
“If we had confidence in the opposition,” Dempsey said, “then they could secure it.” If U.S. troops took on the mission, he added, it would be in a “non-permissive environment.” The challenge would be compounded, the chairman added, because Syrians “have been moving it and the number of sites is quite numerous.”
Michael Eisenstadt, a chemical weapons expert at the Washington Institute, said there’s likely much that the West does not know about Syria’s chemical weapons program, which the Assad regime has not formally acknowledged.
“Our experience with weapons of mass destruction intelligence is very mixed,” he said. “We should not assume that what we know about the Syrian program is true. We can’t assume we have good knowledge.”