Syria may have given up chemical weapons, but what to do next is proving to be tricky

World powers agreed that they wanted to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program. But actually getting rid of the banned material could be far trickier and might require giving military-grade assistance to the Syrian government.

Seven weeks into a breakneck effort to disarm Syria of its toxic arsenal, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the operation, says the country’s ability to produce the banned munitions has been eliminated. But the next goal — getting the most dangerous chemicals out of the country by Dec. 31 and then destroying them — is proving to be a far more difficult diplomatic and logistic feat.

The Obama administration has struggled to find a partner willing to accept the chemical weapons and appears to be considering the possibility that they could be destroyed at sea. No decision has been made, but “one of the destruction options of the chemicals would be on a ship at sea in an environmentally safe manner,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

That would be “technically possible and seriously feasible,” according to OPCW spokesman Christian Chartier.

But even getting the chemicals to a Syrian port is difficult, according to a senior OPCW official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions. There are about a dozen sites in Syria where chemical weapons are stored, and all of them are separated from ports by contested roads, he said. Some of those roads were shut down to the United Nations and civilians last week because of fighting.


What chemical weapons does Syria have?

Moreover, the chemicals are tempting targets for some rebel groups to seize, either to use the preliminary materials within Syria or to build a toxic weapon for use elsewhere.

The Syrian military would be solely responsible for guarding the chemicals as they made their way to port, but the government has said that the task requires a “long list” of equipment — including large armored trucks and communications tools — and that has given other governments pause, the OPCW official said.

The Syrian government is “concerned about the security, and they’re not sure they’re fully equipped,” he said.

The U.N.-OPCW mission in Damascus “will have to make an assessment whether the Syrians are really equipped for this or not,” the official said. “Big armored trucks are good for this kind of operation, but they’re good for other things, too,” he said.

The OPCW official said one possibility is that the equipment could be loaned to the Syrian military, then taken back.

At an OPCW summit in The Hague last week, the 41 nations represented on the organization’s governing council set a Dec. 31 deadline to get the most dangerous chemicals off Syrian territory. The deadline applies to an estimated 1,200 metric tons of material, including sarin and mustard gas. Other, less dangerous chemicals are to be removed by Feb. 5. Taken as a whole, Syria’s declared chemical weapons program would be eliminated by March 15. Further destruction efforts outside Syria would be completed by June 30.

But no country volunteered to accept the chemicals for destruction. Albania, which had been under heavy U.S. pressure to do it, pulled back after domestic protests brought thousands into the streets. Norway indicated earlier that it does not wish to take on the task, though it has said it would send ships to help transport the chemicals out of Syria.

Belgium and France also were possibilities, but they have declined, and many European officials appear to favor destruction on Syrian soil. But doing that would require extensive security commitments from Western powers — an undesirable proposition for many officials — and the destruction infrastructure could take years to build.

The OPCW does not seem to be seriously considering proposals to destroy the chemicals on Syrian soil. It continues to work on plans to shepherd the chemicals out of the country.

The toxins could be destroyed either through incineration or electrolysis, a process that would require diluting the chemicals with a large amount of water and mixing them with bleach. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said last week that the United States was pursuing alternatives to finding a host country for the destruction efforts.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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