Removing Syria's chemical weapons -- in middle of civil war -- a tricky proposition


President Barack Obama arrives to address the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House in Washington, on Sept. 10, 2013. (Photo by Evan Vucci/Reuters.)

Even before President Barack Obama walked up to the podium to make his prime time address on Syria Tuesday night, he had already scored an important diplomatic victory.

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On Monday, the Syrian government reversed two decades of denials by admitting for the first time that it possessed chemical weapons. And then it went further, saying it was willing to sign the international convention banning chemical weapons.

“This is a huge step forward,” says weapons expert Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund. He’s an advisor to the State Department and author of “Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It’s Too Late”.

“If this works out, it could be one of the most significant national security victories in many, many years,” Cirincione said. “Particularly because it would be accomplished without the use of force.”

But that's a very big “if.”

Getting rid of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, dispersed among several dozen sites, as a brutal civil war rages on, would be a huge task. But it's not unfeasible, says Paul Walker of Green Cross International.

Walker is a chemical weapons expert and former staffer for the House Armed Services Committee.

“This is not a project where we can wave a magic wand and get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons in a few weeks or even months,” he said.

Disarmament in Syria would take years, Walker says. But he says it would still be well worth pursuing, as dangerous, costly and slow as it might be.

“We can bring Syria on board the (international treaty banning chemical weapons) regime very quickly. As soon as (Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad) agrees to sign a document of accession to the treaty, he’s in.”

Then, Assad would be required to come clean on his chemical weapons arsenal. That means declaring what he has, where the weapons are produced and where they are stored. After that, Walker says weapons inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would get to work.

Their job would be, “to verify everything, inventory the stockpile and lock everything down, so it can’t be opened or reused.” That process, Walker says, could take a matter of weeks.

All of this would require getting security guarantees from both the Syrian government and opposition groups. That could be another tall order.

But it is also worth trying, says Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department planner and fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“I think we have to acknowledge that there are no very good options for dealing with Syrian chemical weapons," he said. "We could have an air strike or cruise missile strike, but that would not eliminate Syrian chemical weapons and could not guarantee that the Syrian regime wouldn’t use chemical weapons again.”

In Iraq in the 1990s, Shapiro recalled that the Russians were very adept at “wrapping us around the inspections regime.” Instead of addressing the real issues, he says inspectors ended up arguing over whether they can “go to four or six sites, or if sites would be open on Fridays, or whether they can carry their tool bags with them.”

But in the end, Shapiro says the inspections in Iraq in some sense worked.

“They eliminated most — if not all — of the chemical and biological weapons that Saddam Hussein had. And they did so much better than air strikes ever would have,” he said.

If the U.S. does go down the road of using international inspections to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal, the White House should prepare itself for a maddening process. But it might be the best possible option.