It's Time to Revisit Iraq as Syria Offers up its Chemical Weapons Arsenal

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. On the eve of the anniversary of Sept. 11, it's feeling very deja vu. One year after 9/11 when the world was debating with Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and what to do about it, now 12 years after 9/11 we're debating what to do about Syria's weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons in this case, that the US says the Syrian regime used in attacks that killed more than 1,400 people. Our program today is entirely devoted to the Syria debate and the debate itself has shifted dramatically in just the last 24 hours. Russia has proposed getting President Assad to hand his weapons over to an international body and that's what we're going to focus on right now, how would that work exactly? Again, Iraq comes up. It's the most recent precedent in this kind of weapons inspection regime. After the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, the UN destroyed large quantities of Iraqi chemical weapons. Paul Schulte helped oversee the demolition of those arsenals. He was director of arms control for Britain's defense minister. Schulte says the story of what happened to Iraq's chemical weapons might hold useful lessons for Syria today.

Paul Schulte: The Iraqis admitted they had very large numbers of chemical weapons, like hundreds of tons. And they pointed out where they were and the UN team destroyed them. They did it quickly, they not very quickly, the did it over a period of months, but they did it efficiently with a rather small team. They took them out into the desert or started from depots in the desert and burned them and blew them up. This is not the high tech way of doing it. It's not idea for health and safety reasons, but it proved acceptable under Iraqi conditions in the desert. You could think of that as some kind of a model in Syria.

Werman: Right, so let's say a deal is struck. Syria would have to let in a team to I guess inventory the whole thing and get them under control, but what would that actually mean? Hauling them away? Keeping an international team on site to guard the weapons? How would it work?

Schulte: What you'd want to see is a declaration of stocks, so many tons of sarin in such and such a place, 70 tons of VX and another, and filled warheads or bombs in other places. And then you'd want to check that against what your intelligence services know.

Werman: How tough is that, I mean verifying that other caches of chemical weapons aren't being held back?

Schulte: It's pretty difficult to prove a negative, so you would have to rely on your general impression of Syrian truthfulness and sincerity, and there's a lot of distrust in this. It's not quite as bad as it sounds. Syrian senior defectors could look at a declaration and add their view to intelligence assessments of whether this was true or not. The other things you would do I think is look for a kind of technical accountability. So tell us when the production started at this plant. Tell us where they went, tell us what happened to that batch that was produced 20 years ago that may be useless and has been disposed of. Take us through the decision points, that is what was attempted in Iraq and the Iraqis just wouldn't do it. They regarded that as too dangerous to get into that kind of technical accountability. But that is the kind of thing that is expected under the chemical weapons convention, which presumably the Syrians would be signing. There would be lots of pressure for them to do that.

Werman: What about time scales? Are we looking at a gap between the promise of this plan and the reality on the ground?

Schulte: I think there will certainly be tensions around that. I don't know what the Russian, the famous long awaited Russian plan, which they say they have got worked out, actually amounts to. Have they thought about who actually would do this? It's fine to talk about the international community, but who exactly is that? The only ones I've heard about are the Austrians who've said yes, we'll do it, we'll send…or we'll help do it, we'll send some troops, we'll send some technicians, but we want to be guaranteed that those people would get force protection from the UN. Well, so then who's gonna protect the force protectors? Who's going to be in there on the ground in the middle of a civil war, ensuring that small teams of technicians and soldiers guarding the perimeters of maybe 70-80 chemical depots in the middle of nowhere, that those people are safe.

Werman: Right.

Schulte: Who's gonna do it? Would it be the Syrian Army, can you trust them to take things away or would you inspectors riding with the convoys? What happens if they come under fire from the rebels, including rebels who might want to seize stuff themselves, you know, the jihadist groups who regard it as a religious duty to get chemical weapons? Who is going to take on that aspect of assuring the security of these things as they are moved around in the various stages of the destruction?

Werman: Paul Schulte, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was also a director of arms control at the British Defense Ministry from 1997-2002. Paul, thanks a lot.

Schulte: My pleasure.