The deal on the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal to international control came within hours of its proposal, and the country has since promised to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), putting the wheels in motion for the destruction of one of the world’s last major arsenals.
Incredible as it may sound, the deal may be the easy part of the process, however, as actually going from a transfer to international control to the destruction of a large arsenal is a herculean challenge, doubly so in a nation embroiled in a civil war.
The size of Syria’s arsenal isn’t even officially known, though it is believed to be massive. Signing off on international control will mean an army of inspectors, and they will face threats from rebel factions looking to take the arms for their own use in the ongoing war.
Destruction of a large arsenal takes years, and that’s in ideal circumstances. US officials are already talking up this process needing to be sped up before it’s even begun, but that’s unrealistic, and initially its likely going to be all the international community can do to keep the stockpiles secured while they make preparations.
It is this reality that is informing Russia’s opposition to the French resolution at the UN Security Council that seeks to authorize war against Syria if the process stalls at some point in the future, nominally to keep Syria from reneging on the promise.
But the simple reality is that a project of this scale handled by international bureaucracies in a war-torn nation will inevitably have snags, and likely a lot of them. Cost overruns and logistics concerns made the process in some other countries take decades, and people need to be prepared to accept that when facing Syria’s disarmament.
America’s own chemical weapons destruction began in the late 1960s with the decidedly non-environmental solution of loading weapons onto ships and sinking them in the Atlantic Ocean. Despite some pretty major corner-cutting that it seems won’t be on the table for Syria, the US isn’t done, and isn’t going to be done until 2021 at the earliest.
The disarmament in Syria will face all the same problems and some more on top of it, and threatening to attack them if the process hits a stumbling block virtually assures a war. For the process to work, patience is going to be needed not just from the Obama Administration, but those that follow.